The so-called personhood bill that would give civil rights to a fertilized egg in a woman’s womb at the moment of conception has died in the Oklahoma Legislature, but not before some ugly, political theatrics among ultra-conservatives.
Senate Bill 1433 had generated intense opposition, especially from the Oklahoma Coalition For Reproductive Justice, other groups, college students and some Democratic legislators. The anti-abortion bill could have led to limits on birth control and in vitro fertilization methods, according to its opponents, and would have likely resulted in lawsuits. Even conservative Mississippi voted down a personhood ballot initiative.
The Senate passed the measure, but when the bill got to the House, the Republican caucus under House Speaker Kris Steele voted at least two times not to hear the measure, effectively killing it for the session. That’s when things turned ugly.
First, former lawmaker Kevin Calvey, vice chairman of Oklahomans For Life, an anti-abortion group, fired off a protest letter to House members, a letter which can only be described as political blackmail. Even in these times of divided politics, it really crossed a line.
The gist of the letter argued that anyone who voted against procedural votes to allow the bill to be heard in House would be labeled as “pro-abortion” by the anti-abortion organization, a glaring fallacy since opposition to the personhood movement does not necessarily indicate a pro-choice stance.
Here’s the threat from Calvey in the letter:
Procedural votes will be deemed critical prolife votes. lf SB 1433 has not been allowed to come up for a vote beforehand, there will be a procedural move to have a vote on SB 1433 tomorrow. It is with heavy heart that we are forced by House leadership into this course of action. Regrettably, we have no choice but to regard as critical prolife votes any procedural votes necessary to have a House vote on passage of SB 1433 with NO amendments. Such procedures may include, but are not limited to, a Motion to Advance SB 1433 from General Order; appealing the ruling of the Chair, if the Chair has ruled a Motion to Advance out of order; and voting against any Motion to Table the Motion to Advance.
It is with deep regret that we are now forced to regard the failure of any member to support the procedural votes necessary to bring SB 1433 before the House to be proabortion votes. Similarly, the failure of a member to advance the bill to cut off amendments, or any failure to support the bill itself, must also at this point be regarded as proabortion votes on that members record.
Again, it’s quite possible for people to oppose the personhood movement and also consider themselves ardent anti-abortion advocates. SB 1433 could easily be opposed on the grounds of unintended legal consequences alone.
After an outcry among some House members, Calvey and Tony Lauinger, chairperson of Oklahomans For Life, who also signed the letter, backed away from their extreme position.
An Oklahoman editorial tried to conflate Calvey’s and Lauinger’s tactics with other political types of gamesmanship and “a ploy that’s been used forever in politics,” but the direct, specific threat was such an ugly political gesture it drew harsh criticism from House Speaker Designate T.W. Shannon, a Lawton Republican, who emailed Calvey to tell him the letter “disrespected this institution” and that Calvey had “demonstrated an utter lack of professionalism and integrity.” This seems like more than just politics as usual.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Mike Reynolds, an Oklahoma City Republican, tried to instigate the procedural moves to go around House Speak Kris Steele to get the bill a hearing. When the move was shut down and he was made aware the bill was not going to get a hearing, he literally started screaming on the House floor, disrupting the legislative proceedings. (See the video here.)
Both the yelling outburst and the threatening letter represent extreme tunnel vision on a single issue that seems fanatic. The Oklahoma anti-abortion crowd has spent years making it more difficult for impoverished women here to get abortions, but its specific impact on the national level is most likely negligible, and it only generates a bad image for the state.
Unfortunately, a ballot initiative drive to put “personhood” up for a vote in Oklahoma is underway. Will it get even uglier?
One bright side to the personhood-bill drama here was it pulled together the bill’s opponents in a united cause and created a sustained protest that impacted the political process. That’s positive energy that can and will be used again.