By Martha Skeeters, Ph.D., President, Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice and Professor Emerita/Women's and Gender Studies, University of Oklahoma [Left Photo] & Marion Homier, Vice President, Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice [Right Photo]
Oklahomans pride themselves on the way our citizens pull together in emergencies and tragedies — the Murrah Building bombing, wildfires and frequent tornadoes. But many residents, unfortunately, also like to call ours the most conservative state.
That includes relentless efforts to erode reproductive rights. Politicians campaign in part on their determination to end abortion altogether, and they live in real fear of being publicly accused of being “pro-abortion” should they vote against any of the anti-reproductive health bills filed each session. The efforts to chip away women’s — and men’s — reproductive rights are relentless, fueled by a very conservative and religious right constituency.
Living in a conservative state is both maddening and heartening. It means being told by your own representative that “your views are in the decided minority.” It means our kids do not have the option of age-appropriate, science-based sex education in public schools. It means the second-highest teen birth rate in the nation. In addition, our governor opted not to expand Medicaid, denying some 150,000 people subsidized health care under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). While same-sex couples may soon be able to marry, they are still forbidden to adopt children. We believe reproductive justice demands improvements in these and other areas, so we decided to fight back.
In 2010, when legislators passed eight bills seeking to put barriers in the way of access to abortion,1 I (Martha) co-founded the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice (OCRJ), a grassroots organization. Almost daily local news coverage quoted the so-called “pro-life” lobbyists on how great these laws were, with nary a word about their negative impact on women. That lopsided coverage has changed since OCRJ has been on the scene; people who support reproductive rights no longer feel alone, and fewer people are afraid to speak their minds. I (Marion, OCRJ VP) became a committed volunteer, having seen coverage of OCRJ’s actions in the news.
Since 2010, an additional 10 bills have been signed into law to restrict reproductive rights.2 And the attacks continue this session. Despite the fact that the Oklahoma Supreme Court recently struck down the state’s medication abortion ban, the legislature returned to pass another medication abortion restriction which would prohibit doctors from following the most up-to-date medical practices, and deny some women access to medication abortion altogether. Politicians this year were also a broken record with respect to emergency contraception (EC); although a court struck down a restriction on EC the year before, the legislature was not deterred and this year again attempted to advance a nearly identical bill targeting minors’ access to this critical form of contraception. In Oklahoma, what’s old is new again.
And there’s more. A new bill requiring hospital admitting privileges for physicians providing abortions (a requirement for which there’s no medical basis) was signed this week by Governor Mary Fallin; it could close two of the state’s three clinics. Oklahoma is also the home of Hobby Lobby — the for-profit corporation challenging the ACA’s birth control benefit at the U.S. Supreme Court — and bills have been filed, though not passed, to provide a tax break for any company fined for not following the requirements of the ACA.
So yes, it’s harrowing to live in Oklahoma. Still, we have been heartened by our successes in fighting back. We fought to keep intact a veto of a harmful insurance ban and stopped a “personhood” bill from advancing. Three OCRJ board members acted as individual plaintiffs to defeat a proposed ballot initiative to define a fertilized egg as a person in the state constitution — a measure that would have seriously jeopardized the rights of Oklahoma women. All told, working with the Center for Reproductive Rights, we have successfully challenged three harmful laws that would have turned the clock back on access to reproductive health care in Oklahoma. And we continue to fight on behalf of the women and families of Oklahoma. We will continue to take our message to the state through lobbying and event days at the Capitol and informational tables at events. We keep our 1,500 members informed and reach out to others through our website and Facebook page. We have a voice and we are using it.
1 Among them was one of the nation’s first mandatory ultrasound laws, a law allowing a doctor to lie about fetal health, a requirement for an extended questionnaire about the lives of abortion patients, and a ban on insurance coverage of abortion.
2 These have included outlawing the evidence-based protocol for medication abortion, banning abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy, banning telemedicine for medication abortions, allowing civil actions against doctors not following biased counseling laws, requiring abortion providers to give patients the option to hear the fetal heartbeat, reducing minors’ options for parental notification and judicial bypass, mandating extensive reporting of abortion patients’ information, and putting restrictions on Oklahoma stores selling Plan B One-Step over the counter in direct contradiction to the FDA’s recent decision to approve the drug for women of all ages without restriction.