Something unexpected happened in the Oklahoma Legislature on February 8 that had Karo Chowning feeling pretty optimistic. That morning, lawmakers in the House Public Health Committee blocked one anti-abortion bill and a second was tabled without discussion.
It was certainly unusual for a deeply conservative Republican government that over the years has distinguished itself by passing some of the strictest abortion regulations in the country — regardless of whether those measures are unconstitutional, which many certainly are. Since 2011, lawmakers in Oklahoma have passed 20 such measures, a number of which have been blocked by the courts or are tied up in litigation.
If passed as written, the two measures that were slated for consideration on February 8 would almost certainly end up in court as well.
So when the two bills on the meeting agenda didn’t sail out of committee, Chowning, past-president of the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, was pleased. Just the day before, she’d walked the Capitol corridors hoping to get face time with as many of the members of the committee as possible, and in particular, with its sizable contingent of freshmen, in an effort to convince them they should vote down the two measures.
The first, Rep. George Faught’s House Bill 1549, was returning for a second year. Under the measure, a woman would be blocked from aborting a fetus because it has — or is suspected of having — a genetic abnormality, regardless of how early she sought termination. Although the measure made it out of the House in 2016, it languished in the Senate.
The bill was taking a complicated and personal issue and turning it into a cut-and-dry measure that in part seemed intended to pit disability activists and reproductive rights advocates against each other, Chowning thought.
But to Chowning and other members of the coalition, it was the second bill, HB 1441, that was even more disturbing, devoid of any nuance and completely unconstitutional. Written by another of the chamber’s freshmen, Rep. Justin Humphrey, the legislation would require a woman seeking an abortion first to obtain written permission from her sexual partner. It would also require her to provide his name to her doctor and would forestall the procedure if the man wanted the opportunity to challenge paternity.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar provision in 1992.
It was with all this in mind that Chowning set off on her Capitol rounds. Five of the eight lawmakers sitting on the Public Health Committee are freshmen; only two members are Democrats and only one is a woman — a freshman Republican. Chowning was eager to talk, hoping the OCRJ might find new allies.
The next morning, the Public Health Committee session was brief, its outcome unanticipated. After a hearing on HB 1549, the measure came up for a vote. The committee paused, but the streaming audio feed remained live: “We’re going to get beat,” one lawmaker said in a hushed tone. Then, later, another: “This is going to be in the news.”
The bill failed to pass — particularly surprising considering that the vote coincided with the annual Rose Day, when pro-lifers converge on the Capitol. With one Democratic lawmaker absent, the vote had tied 4-4, with three of the Republican freshmen joining the lone Democratic freshman to block the bill from leaving committee.
But that wasn’t the only surprise to come; shortly after Faught’s bill failed to pass, Humphrey’s HB 1441 was tabled without comment.
“I’m beyond excited about the way the votes went this morning,” Chowning told The Intercept on Wednesday afternoon. “I mean, I’m not feeling so good that I don’t want all of my friends to call their legislators every single day, but, yeah, I’m feeling optimistic.”
But just as quickly as they were disposed of the first time around, both pieces of legislation have re-emerged: On Thursday afternoon the measures were put back on the committee agenda — slated for hearing on Valentine’s Day.
The perversity of the timing aside, for Chowning and others in the coalition the reversal of course is nowhere near as surprising as the bills being blocked the first time around. “I think it’s universally viewed that our state, Kansas, and a few others are really the worst out there” for reproductive rights, said Rev. Shannon Speidel, a minister in Enid, Oklahoma, and a current member of the coalition’s board.
Speidel has worked on issues of reproductive justice in Arkansas and on the national stage as a member of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, which is sponsored by the Center for American Progress. “Especially with the institute I hear a lot about this work all over the country, and every single state has their fights — even the most progressive ones. Ours is recognized as one of the most hostile states in the nation.”
Indeed, it appears that HB 1549 will pass out of committee on February 14. Freshman Republican Rep. Mark Lawson told The Intercept that he initially voted no because he was concerned that as written the bill would face a successful legal challenge, which would be a fiscal drain on a state facing a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall.
At issue is the bill’s banning of abortion for any particular reason prior to the point of viability; courts have made clear that the government may not inquire about or impose upon a woman’s reason for seeking an abortion in earlier stages of pregnancy.
Lawson said he worked with Faught to amend the bill so that only abortions based on genetic abnormality past the point of viability outside the womb would be banned. He is now a co-sponsor of the measure. He said he suspects the bill will pass “with no problem” during the Tuesday hearing. “If we’re going to fight the pro-life fight, we have to do it the right way, and we are doing it the right way.”
If fiscal concerns and the potential for litigation prompted Lawson to vote no on HB 1549, one would definitely expect him to vote the same way on the bill requiring male permission for an abortion.
Though still posted to the committee agenda, the bill has yet to have any kind of amendment attached to it — and it’s hard to imagine one that would cure its defects, considering that the Supreme Court more than two decades ago ruled against a provision that would require a woman to notify her husband of her intention to get an abortion.
Of all the bills filed this session, HB 1441 has been most troubling to coalition members, said Speidel. “This one, by far, was the one that bothered us the most,” she said. “There were a lot of feelings about it. In a state that doesn’t really spend a lot of time on domestic violence issues it really just showed ignorance regarding what relationships can be for some women.”
Humphrey did not respond to an email seeking information on why the bill was so quickly reposted, though in a brief conversation on February 8 he tried to explain the logic and intent behind the measure.
“But after you’re irresponsible then don’t claim, well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you’re the host and you invited that in.”
At first, Humphrey said that the original intention of the bill was to ensure that fathers are involved in supporting a child from conception. “I was wanting fathers to have to pay child support at the beginning,” he said, but that specific language was excised from the bill.
Ultimately, he said, his intent was to let men have a say. “I believe one of the breakdowns in our society is that we have excluded the man out of all of these types of decisions,” he said. “I understand that they feel like that is their body,” he said of women. “I feel like it is a separate — what I call them is, is you’re a ‘host.’ And you know when you enter into a relationship you’re going to be that host and so, you know, if you pre-know that then take all precautions and don’t get pregnant,” he explained. “So that’s where I’m at. I’m like, hey, your body is your body and be responsible with it. But after you’re irresponsible then don’t claim, well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you’re the host and you invited that in.”
“I would say it’s certainly a new low for Oklahoma,” said Amanda Allen, senior state legislative counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, though she is hardly shocked that Oklahoma lawmakers would seek to pass such a regressive bill. “This is, to my mind, a fruitless effort to shame and stigmatize women who are seeking abortion care and it is completely and unequivocally unconstitutional.”
But Oklahoma does have a reputation as being one of a handful of states trying to “push the envelope,” she said. Last session, while staring down the more than $1 billion shortfall lawmakers nonetheless found the time to pass a complete ban on abortion, a bill that was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Mary Fallin — likely more as a practical matter than one rooted in a desire to champion reproductive autonomy.
Indeed, according to the Guttmacher Institute, Oklahoma ranks second behind Louisiana for the sheer number of abortion restrictions passed since 1973, the year the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. Since 2011, the CRR has taken the state to court eight times. Of the cases that have been resolved, the CRR has a 100 percent win record.
None of this is new to coalition members, of course, who have been the named plaintiffs on CRR’s legal actions. And while they’re disappointed that a bill like HB 1441 would even be proposed, they hope it will die before February 14.
And they know that there are plenty of battles to come, including fighting back a measure that again seeks to ban abortion outright and would see abortion doctors (and potentially the women in their care) charged with first-degree murder. (A version passed last year was the one Fallin vetoed.)
Such bills, said Chowning, are simply “absurd.” They waste taxpayer resources and take the focus off what lawmakers should be doing — focusing on the budget and passing legislation that actually helps Oklahomans, Chowning and Speidel said. They note that there are good bills pending that the coalition supports — like paid family leave, raising the minimum wage, ensuring sexual assault kits are tested, and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act — that would be immediately beneficial to women and their families.
When talking to lawmakers about issues of reproductive justice, Speidel grounds her arguments in her faith. “I say to them, it is immoral and anti-Christian to pass restriction after restriction after restriction and then to do nothing to support women and families in this state,” she said. “If you really want to make abortions be gone, then do everything possible to provide birth control, to have comprehensive sex education and, more importantly, to make sure there are programs in place that are going to help women and families.”