Oklahoma activists block antiabortion legislation

How can choice advocates ensure more outcomes like this one?

Published May 7, 2007 1:10PM (EDT)

If a reproductive-rights victory is achieved, and few witness it, did it really happen?

Of course it did!

Back in April, grass-roots and state activists in Oklahoma helped block SB-714 (PDF), which was poised to ban the use of public funds to pay for abortions except to save the life of the mother. Oklahoma's Gov. Brad Henry vetoed the bill, but its backers threatened to override the veto -- and fell short by just one vote.

In its original form, SB-714 would have prohibited state employees or facilities, including agencies that receive state funding, from performing or "encouraging" a woman to have an abortion. The legislation would have prohibited publicly funded hospitals from providing women therapeutic abortions, which protect the health of the mother or terminate a pregnancy in which the fetus demonstrates a genetic anomaly.

This state-level victory received little media or blog coverage, and was quickly overshadowed by the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act.

Thankfully, National Advocates for Pregnant Women prevented the victory from going unnoticed by organizing a conference call May 4, and I was able to listen in.

It was a rare pleasure to discuss a reproductive-rights victory with those who achieved it, but there was more to this conference call than a celebration of success. Reproductive freedom is being attacked on multiple fronts, so the Oklahoma outcome provides an opportunity to learn what works. The conference call afforded a snapshot of how the various components of the movement can work together to achieve success.

Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma director of external affairs Keri Parks opened the call with information about access to abortion in Oklahoma. In short, it's a little bleak: There are only three abortion providers in the state, and abortions are not provided anywhere in Oklahoma after 17 weeks. PPCO, where Parks works, does not provide abortion services.

But the shortage of providers may have had a silver lining when it came to defeating SB-714. Parks explained that PPCO has a limited advocacy budget, so the organization had to partner with other groups to fight the bill.

Doctors were crucial to the Oklahoma victory. Call participant Dana Stone pointed out that the bill emerged from committee with little input having been sought from medial professionals. (Stone is an OB-GYN, vice president of PPCO's board of directors and Oklahoma representative for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.) Many members of the medical community joined in opposition to SB-714, including the Oklahoma Section of the ACOG (PDF), the Oklahoma State Medical Association (PDF) and the Oklahoma Nurses Association (PDF). This advocacy helped persuade state Sen. Charlie Laster, a Democrat, to prevent the override. He told the Oklahoman, "I initially voted in favor of Senate Bill 714. However, in the days since that vote, I have visited with Governor Henry and multiple medical professionals. I am pro-life, and I have consistently voted for pro-life legislation. This bill, however, holds poorer Oklahomans to a different standard than everyone else, and I can't support that." Score!

Rallying opposition to the bill also required help from people with experience in state and local politics. Wanda Jo Stapleton, a former state representative and feminist activist and lobbyist in Oklahoma City, says she was amazed by the arrogance of SB-714's backers. In response, activists refuted misinformation about the bill, like the flawed notion that the legislation wouldn't detract from patient care. Activists were able visit legislators' communities and educate their constituents about the real language contained in SB-714 and the impact that language would have on women's lives. "Making nice and being passive only gets you a pat on the head," Stapleton said.

Friday's conference call underscored the message that collective partnerships between groups with diverse strengths help choice advocacy pack a greater punch. Of course, SB-714 could appear again in Oklahoma. But Stapleton emerged from the legislative fight with a heartening conclusion: Community education and grass-roots activism can change the minds of the public and of elected officials. We may experience setbacks at the state and local levels, but choice advocates need to be proactive.

We must be prepared for the challenges sure to come, and we can learn a lot from victories hard won.

By Pamela Merritt

Pamela Merritt is the Co-Founder of Reproaction, a leading abortion rights and reproductive justice organization. Pamela is an activist and writer committed to empowering individuals and communities through reproductive justice. A proud Midwesterner, Merritt is dedicated to protecting and expanding access to the full spectrum of reproductive healthcare.

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