The reddest state: Oklahoma's long battle over abortion law

I wanted to understand the way abortion opponents viewed the law, so I went to Oklahoma

By Michelle Oberman
Published January 22, 2018 11:59PM (UTC)
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Anti-abortion activists stand outside the Oklahoma Senate chambers urging lawmakers to hear an anti-abortion measure that would make it a felony crime to perform an abortion (AP/Sue Ogrocki)

Adapted from "Her Body, Our Laws: On the Frontlines of the Abortion War, From El Salvador to Oklahoma" by Michelle Oberman (Beacon Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

The best place to watch the U.S. battle over abortion law play out is in a state where a strong majority identifies as pro-life, and lawmakers are determined to pass laws opposing abortion. I wanted to understand the way abortion opponents viewed the law. Did they look to the law for moral condemnation, as I’d seen abortion opponents do in El Salvador? How might things change, in their eyes, were abortion to be banned? I couldn’t hope to learn how the pro-life movement viewed abortion laws without leaving my home, in the blue state of California. And so, in 2013, I went to Oklahoma.

Her Body Our Laws
As most Oklahomans will proudly tell you, it is a really, really red state. After Democrats lost every single county in the state in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, Oklahomans laid claim to being “the reddest state in the country.”  In 2016, Republican Donald Trump won over 65 percent of the vote. His Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton earned less than 30 percent.

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Oklahoma caught my eye when I first began thinking about visiting a red state because of the pace at which Oklahoma passed its pro-life legislation. In less than a decade, it brought its abortion laws right to the limits of what was permissible under federal law as dictated by the U.S. Supreme Court. This fervor has earned Oklahoma top ratings in the Americans United for Life’s annual legislative report card for over a decade.

Oklahoma also has the virtue of being home to several law schools, which meant I had a place to begin seeking contacts. The Oklahoma City University Law School, located blocks from the capitol, has alumni serving throughout state government. I reached out to former dean Lawrence Hellman, who, along with Professors Arthur LeFrancois and Andrew Spiropoulos, introduced me to lawmakers, lobbyists, doctors, and activists at the forefront of the state’s battles over abortion law. I  rented a house in a modest neighborhood in Oklahoma City and moved in for the hot summer months of 2013. And I started listening.

WHEN OKLAHOMA WAS A DEMOCRATIC STATE

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In 1973, Oklahoma was a solidly Democratic state. Not only did the people vote Democratic in national elections, Democrats held both chambers and the governor’s office. The largest religious organization in the state, the Southern Baptist Convention, supported legalized abortion.

Anyone hoping to understand abortion politics in Oklahoma must sooner or later reckon with the impact and the legacies of two men: Tony Lauinger and Bernest Cain. Since 1973, Lauinger has devoted himself singularly to the cause of ending legalized abortion. He’s never held office, yet even the legislators I met spoke of the bills Lauinger introduced, the laws he got passed, and the thickly powerful pro-life coalition he commands.

From 1978 to 2006, Lauinger’s nemesis was state senator Bernest Cain. In his capacity as chair of the Senate Human Resources Committee, working at the behest of the Senate president pro tempore, Cain spent close to thirty years preventing antiabortion bills from reaching the Senate floor. His district was the most liberal in the state, which insulated him from the increasingly socially conservative statewide electorate. By keeping pro-life bills stalled in his committee, he single-handedly kept Oklahoma from passing laws that restricted access to abortion.

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By the end of his time in office, Cain was playing a frenzied game of whack-a-mole. Both state houses were filled with legislators elected on promises to end legalized abortion. The backlog of antiabortion bills was legion. Districts had swung so far to the right that his fellow Democrats no longer thanked him for protecting them from the political fallout they would have faced, had they been forced to cast a vote their constituents might have viewed as “pro-abortion.” Whether for reasons of moral conviction or political expedience, most Democrats and Republicans wanted to pass laws restricting abortion.

But our story begins decades before then, back in the days when abortion had just become legal.

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Building a Pro-Life Movement in Oklahoma: 1973–2004

Lauinger was alone when, in 1973, he began fighting against legalized abortion. He was a Catholic in a state where 60 percent of the population was Southern Baptist and only 4 percent was Catholic.

In an article in the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC)’s World Magazine, Lauringer’s entry into antiabortion activism is described: “In 1972, he was preparing to become a father for the first time. He reveled in being able to feel his baby kicking inside his wife’s womb. When the Supreme Court legalized abortion, several months after his daughter’s birth, he felt like he’d been hit in the face by a four by four.”

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Born into exceptional wealth, Lauinger was thirty in 1972, when he felt called into service in response to Roe v. Wade. He began by founding Tulsans for Life, an affiliate of the NRLC. By 1978, he was president of Oklahomans for Life and a member of the NRLC’s board of directors.

It is hard to remember a time when the battle over abortion was not at the center of our public discourse. Kristen Luker’s 1984 book, "Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood," is a masterful history of antiabortion activism in the years immediately following Roe. Her book helps set the context for understanding Lauinger’s work.

Luker’s research on pro-life activism in the years following the Supreme Court’s Roe ruling documents a movement built largely by individuals who were shocked by the court’s decision. They had interpreted the relative silence about abortion as a collective agreement that the fetus was a person, and that abortion ends the life of a child.7 United by their shared opposition to abortion on moral grounds, yet lacking political experience or community-organizing backgrounds, early pro-life activists gained a foothold in faith-based communities.

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In the context of religious communities, Lauinger forged an alliance that is central to the power of Oklahoma’s pro-life movement. By the early 1980s, Lauinger was working to mobilize Oklahoma’s largest faith-based organization to join him in fighting against legalized abortion.

In order to explain the way pro-life politics evolved in Oklahoma, I have to say a bit about the centrality of organized religion in public life. God is ubiquitous in Oklahoma. That’s silly, of course, because for those who believe in God, by definition, God is everywhere. But in Oklahoma, unlike California, God is really out in public. God surfaces not only in clichéd billboards and bumper stickers but also in casual conversations.

I feel pretty grounded in my faith as a Jew. I’m not put off when others make reference to God when describing their lives, the decisions they’ve made, or the way they’ve coped with adversity. There was something foreign to me, though, about the way so many Oklahomans spoke of a personal relationship with God and of the need to live, and to pass abortion laws, in accordance with God’s dictates.

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To the extent that I was going to understand what folks meant when they invoked God in our conversations about abortion and the law, I knew I needed to understand more about the Southern Baptist Convention. There are many different types of evangelical communities in Oklahoma, and I don’t mean to suggest that the Southern Baptists speak for all of them. It’s just that the Southern Baptists are by far the largest: 60 percent of Oklahomans identify as Southern Baptists.

So, on a hot July morning in 2013, I traveled to the state headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention to meet with Dr. Anthony Jordan, its executive director. The five-story office building on Oklahoma City’s north side houses an organization that represents over 1,830 churches in Oklahoma. It publishes a paper with the third-largest circulation in the state, a weekly called the Baptist Messenger. In a sense, one might see Jordan as the voice of the state’s majority.

Jordan’s involvement with abortion politics didn’t begin until 1985.That year, he was asked to preach at a statewide conference for Baptist pastors. He was invited to speak about any moral issue. Because he and his wife had struggled with infertility, he had a personal connection to the issue of adoption, and to the way in which legalized abortion reduced the number of babies put up for adoption. He decided to preach about abortion.

He began by listing his reasons for opposing abortion, which included both medical and biblical sources. But the speech took a personal turn when he mentioned a recent news story about the discovery of sixteen thousand body parts found behind an abortion clinic in California. “At that point,” he said, “I asked my wife to bring up our five-month-old adopted daughter. ‘When I read about the trash heap,’ I told the crowd, ‘it bothered me even more so because this little girl. . . . If it hadn’t been for the Baptist Children’s Home opening their doors to her Catholic mother, she could have been in a trash heap.’

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“The entire room, including me, was in tears,” he said. His eyes were wet even now, remembering the moment.

In the wake of that speech, Jordan and the Southern Baptist Convention joined forces with Lauinger and the Oklahoma Right to Life organization. Together, they developed a series of projects and initiatives. Foremost among the public demonstrations is the annual Rose Day rally, which began in the mid-1970s when two Catholic women brought roses to their state legislators to mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. This small gesture evolved into a yearly event that by 2016 saw an estimated twenty thousand Oklahomans converge on the state capitol, each bearing roses for their lawmakers. Today, Oklahoma’s Rose Day is one of the nation’s largest annual pro-life gatherings. In the early years, pro-life legislators invited the activists into the state house, letting them sit on the floor during their rally. In recent years, the crowd has been so big it fills the Senate floor and both legislative galleries. The rally features speakers ranging from the governor to national pro-life leaders. Roses are everywhere.

On a more quotidian level, the church began offering support, along with ministry, through pregnancy resource centers. Jordan’s church created Hope Pregnancy Center, one of the first in the state. It is staffed by volunteer community members and funded by donations and by the state of Oklahoma, through its sponsored “Choose Life” license plate program. The center, along with several hundred similar centers around the state, offers pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and aid to women facing unplanned pregnancies. Jordan explained the mission of these centers, “We offer to stand beside the woman, supporting her through parenting training, placement of her baby with adopted family, if they wish. We support her either way.”

The Southern Baptist Convention’s work is not limited to rallies and counseling. Indeed, its most significant impact may be the mobilization of a powerful voting bloc. Under Jordan’s leadership, the Southern Baptist Convention publishes election brochures that list candidates’ positions on abortion. Jordan told me that he couldn’t vote for a pro-choice candidate today, and his voting guides help similar-minded voters follow suit.

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With at least nine hundred thousand members identifying as Southern Baptists, Jordan confidently noted, “We’re organized and we can move.” They’ve developed an alert system, dividing the state into districts to get out the vote. With a phone call, his office can mobilize forty-two separate organizations.

Until 2004, all that mobilization had little effect on the statewide abortion laws. “We had the numbers,” Jordan noted. “I knew where people stood on the abortion issue in my constituency. I knew the number of churches, the number of Catholics, and the number of nondenominational Christians. But the Capitol wouldn’t move.”

I knew why. I’d already had lunch with Senator Bernest Cain.

Block That Bill: The Career of Senator Bernest Cain

 Over lunch in a crowded restaurant where suited patrons stomped off the March rain and greeted one another with cheery backslaps and clasped handshakes, former state senator Bernest Cain told me about his relationship with God.

“It’s always been a religious deal to me,” he said. “I knew my work at forestalling abortion bills was only a holding pattern. I never looked at it as a success; I never celebrated my victories. It had to be dealt with spiritually. I’ve done what I’ve done because I’ve worked to be true to my faith as a Unitarian.

“The hypocrisy of wealthy Republicans aggravates me,” he said. “I think they’ve gotten away with making abortion a litmus test, more so than gay rights, because of class and gender. Abortion affects poor women, not men.” Having seen firsthand which women were most affected when El Salvador banned abortion, I knew all too well what Cain meant.

What he said about gay rights made sense to me too. It’s not that the battle for gay rights was easily won, but think of the speed with which activists were able to secure those rights. In the face of AIDS, in an era in which the president took years to acknowledge that millions of gay men were dying, activists got the Food and Drug Administration to accelerate the drug approval process. Two decades later, they had won rights ranging from freedom from discrimination to the right to marry.

The triumph of gay rights is a reflection, as Cain suggests, of the relative power of privileged gay men compared to poor women of color. Gay men (and women) vote. Political candidates ignore or insult them at their peril. By contrast, the women most affected by abortion policies aren’t organized into a voting bloc. Many aren’t even old enough to vote. Women’s options, when facing an unwanted pregnancy, depend upon their financial resources. We saw it in El Salvador, and we see it here. Those with money have better options than those without. And the poorest women are unlikely to command the ear of a senator.

Cain paid an enormous price for his commitment to protect abortion rights. Although Cain is most proud of work he did on other issues— child support and aid to the elderly poor—he is remembered and reviled for his stance on abortion. By the end of his three decades in office, he feared for his life.

“Some of these people hated me,” he said. Six years after leaving office, he still feels the burden of his legacy. “I made a lot of enemies, which limits my ability to serve as a retiree and a volunteer.”

Cain never campaigned on a reproductive rights platform. He didn’t even think about abortion during his first campaign, back in 1978:

My opponent was a John Birch–type incumbent who wanted to fire gay teachers. She voted against the Equal Rights Amendment. I’d left the Baptist church a few years before, after spending a summer in 1972 working as a missionary in Center City, Philadelphia. I was in my third year of Baptist Bible College in Texas. I’d had a hard year because I’d begun to question the notion that the Bible is the word of God. I’d already decided that virgins didn’t have babies. And then, in Philly I saw girls from the ghettos, black and Italian young girls. I came home worried that their lives were ruined as a result of having babies so young. By the end of that year, they kicked me out of Bible College. I finished school at the University of Oklahoma, where I later got a law degree and completed the course work for a PhD in political science. I was working at the university in education, setting standards for county governments. The issues that mattered to me then embarrass me now: mandatory minimum sentences and capital punishment. I favored them both. And I also felt strongly about protecting the civil rights of gay teachers. The gay community organized around my campaign. I won by 175 votes. There was a big fight over seating me; it was such a close election. After that first race, though, I knew how to organize. I walked door-to-door, precinct by precinct. I held my seat even after the Right to Life turned poor churchgoing whites into Republicans. Even after 1986, when Tony [Lauinger] started mailing my constituents at election time saying I was for killing babies.

OKLAHOMA’S RED SHIFT

Everything about abortion law in Oklahoma began to change between 2004 and 2006, the final two years of Cain’s tenure.

As Jordan of the Southern Baptist Convention put it, “In 2004, politics finally began to reflect the true nature of Oklahoma.” It was and remains a state in which a large majority of the public identifies as social conservatives.

The Law

In September 1990, Oklahoma voters passed a term-limits law, State Question 632, limiting service in the state legislature to twelve years.

The consequences of this amendment to the state constitution weren’t felt until 2004, when the first group of lawmakers termed out. Certainly the most obvious change was the rapid shift in political control over the House, first, and then the Senate, from Democratic to Republican hands. Professor Andrew Spiropoulos explained how it had happened: “Term limits plus the candidacy of Barack Obama turned the state red almost overnight,” he said.  Spiropoulos knew firsthand how Oklahoma suddenly went “pro-life.” In 2005, he took a two-year leave of absence from his job teaching law at Oklahoma City University in order to serve as the Oklahoma State House Policy Advisor. In that capacity, he was in charge of helping the new Speaker of the House determine and implement the Republican agenda.

Abortion was a big part of the Republican agenda because of the central role it played in unifying constituents within the Republican coalition. Spiropoulos said, “Urban Republicans always needed a coalition of rural voters to win here, and these rural voters are pro-life and ‘pro-marriage.’” (He clarified that by “pro-marriage,” he actually meant anti–gay marriage.) The pro-marriage issue won’t sustain the coalition, he conjectured, because more libertarian urban Republicans will defect. Hence, abortion has become the central unifying issue for Oklahoma’s Republican Party.

In spring 2006, a bill requiring minors to obtain parental consent became the first antiabortion provision signed into law. It was quickly followed by a bevy of laws, including provisions barring the use of state funds or public facilities to provide abortions, mandating ultrasounds, banning abortion after twenty weeks’ gestation, restricting the prescription of RU-486, and prohibiting insurance companies from offering abortion coverage.

Spiropoulos attributed the extraordinary volume of abortion laws passed as a response to Cain’s having blocked the laws for so long:

The most important consequence of Cain’s single-handed thwarting of majority sentiment is that he created such an intense blockage in the system and waves of resentment that, when the Republicans took over, it exploded in a flood of new laws. If Cain had not blocked everything, a few of the laws would have passed over the years and, arguably, there wouldn’t have been such a rush to pass everything but the kitchen sink—there would have been new pro-life legislation, but the efforts would have been more measured.

Now I understood how Oklahoma had suddenly emerged as a prolife legislative powerhouse.

None of the laws Oklahoma passed were new. They simply passed every measure enacted by other pro-life states, along with the occasional model bill drafted by Americans United for Life.

The laws cover a broad range of issues. Some of the laws, such as a ban on sex-selective abortion, are plainly symbolic. Women seeking abortions in Oklahoma, as in other states, need not provide a reason for terminating their pregnancies. There is no way to enforce this provision.

Other laws have had a direct impact on the delivery of reproductive health care in the state. For example, one state law forbids the use of public funds or facilities for the provision of abortion services. This law bars doctors at the University of Oklahoma hospital—the state’s leading health-care center—from providing abortions for any reasons other than rape, incest, or medical necessity. The ban’s most dramatic consequences are seen in cases involving poor women, who learn, typically halfway through their pregnancies, that their fetuses have severe anomalies.

Consider what happens when a poor woman finds out that her fetus has trisomy 18, a condition that causes sever developmental delays due to an extra chromosome 18. As anomalies go, it’s fairly common—one in 2,500 pregnancies, and one in 6,000 births. Most of the time, the woman miscarries. For those who survive, life is precarious and profoundly limited. Only 10 percent will reach their first birthday. Those who live require full-time, institutionalized care.

Yet unless this pregnant woman has money to pay for a private abortion—which by mid-trimester, when these anomalies typically are discovered, will cost thousands, rather than hundreds, of dollars—she must continue her pregnancy.

Nor is the impact of these new abortion laws limited to the poorest Oklahomans. Indeed, one of the men I interviewed remarked that the laws already have affected him personally. When he and his wife were expecting their first child, his wife’s obstetrician advised them to do their routine twenty-week ultrasound at eighteen weeks, earlier than called for by the national standard of care. Because state law now bans abortions after twenty weeks, the doctor worried that waiting would risk their ability to terminate the pregnancy in the event the tests revealed a serious fetal anomaly.

Abortion Lawmakers: Moral Visionaries and Movement Politicians

I wanted to talk with the lawmakers. It seemed like the best way for me to understand what sort of expectations were behind this firestorm of new abortion laws. Did the legislators think the law could deter abortions? Were they persuaded that a speech from a doctor about fetal pain would cause some women to rethink their decisions? Or did they see the law as serving more symbolic purposes? Would they have agreed with Jordan of the Southern Baptist Convention, who said, “It may be tempting to postulate that the laws don’t matter; that it’s impossible to legislate morals. But no, you can legislate morality.”

Although he had never held office, Lauinger’s name was at the top of my list of people I wanted to interview. My conversations with Spiropoulos confirmed my sense that Lauinger played a central role in setting the state’s antiabortion legislative agenda. Spiropoulos offered to call Lauinger on my behalf to tell him that I was “safe” and to ask him to meet with me.

When Lauinger didn’t return my e-mails, I asked Spiropoulos if he’d reach out again. He did. Then, with only weeks to go before my visit, I left two voice messages at Lauinger’s office. Finally, I found a residential listing under his name in Tulsa and left an apologetic message, introducing myself and all but pleading for the chance to meet him.

Mostly, I wanted to know what animates someone like him to devote his life to fighting to make abortion illegal. Pro-life men populate clinic protests, their red faces hurling epithets at cowering patients. But Lauinger didn’t stand in the rain with a Bible and a placard. He was universally described as “courtly” and “gentlemanly.”

To me, he seemed like the wizard behind the curtain. He was the unelected man who, from his home in the suburbs, waged a decades-long battle to change abortion law. And if victory was measured in numbers of laws passed, he seemed to be winning.

“Why the law?” I wanted to ask him. “What is it you believe will be changed when Roe falls?”

But Lauinger didn’t return my calls or messages, so I never got to ask him. I learned later that, in addition to ignoring my entreaties, he also framed the scope of my interviews in Oklahoma. A week before my first visit to Oklahoma, Lauinger had sent e-mails to a long list of pro-life leaders around the state. One of the men I interviewed later read Lauinger’s e-mail to me. Lauinger had written to him as an “ally,” telling him that he and his assistant had declined my request to meet with them. He encouraged this man to do the same.

“She is pro-abortion,” he wrote, and as proof, he included a link to an online petition I’d signed in 2007, decrying the threats to civil rights and to public health policy posed by forcing pregnant women to undergo testing for illegal drugs. He continued, “Long experience has taught me that there’s nothing to be gained by helping gather intelligence from behind enemy lines from seemingly well-meaning academics.” Now I understood why three Republican legislators had written to cancel our meetings, telling me they were too busy to reschedule.

In the end, I was left with a small but interesting cross-section of folks to interview. There were four former legislators and two sitting lawmakers, one who is widely viewed as the furthest right member in the State House of Representatives, and the other, the furthest left in the State Senate.

It was a rich pool in spite of Lauinger’s interference. Two of the former lawmakers were pro-life Republicans; both had served for at least two terms and both had been in office during the recent shift in power. Because I wasn’t looking to survey a large group of lawmakers, but rather to learn how they understood the role of law, the combined experiences and perspectives of those I interviewed proved to be plenty.

The Moral Visionary

Many of my interviews about abortion law in Oklahoma began with a preface, offered palms up and with an unwavering gaze: “I believe that abortion is the taking of a human life.” If someone starts from that premise, it seems obvious why they would favor a complete ban on abortion. The law should not permit women to terminate their pregnancies any more than it should permit women to kill their two-week-old newborns. The law governing abortion should mirror the law governing homicide.

I went searching for a lawmaker who held these beliefs. I found State Representative Mike Reynolds.

Elected in 2002, Reynolds proudly told me that he’s considered “the most outspoken member of the legislature.”14 He’s passionate in his battle against the corruption he believes permeates much of state politics. He’s crusaded against tax policies and other political stratagems that serve the interests of the four billionaires who “essentially control the whole state,” including the newspapers and other media outlets that they own. That said, he is clear about what really matters to him. “The stuff about corruption is games,” he said. “The only thing I’ve ever cared about is saving unborn children.”

I was a little surprised Reynolds still wanted to meet with me, given how many of his colleagues had canceled our interviews. “Ten o’clock will be perfect,” he told me. “We can meet at H&H. That way, you can stay for lunch at the High Noon Club. It’s every Friday. We have all sorts of speakers. Half the Republican caucus will be there, and sometimes the lieutenant governor and the governor come, too. The only rule of membership is, if you have to ask what time it meets, you can’t come.” He laughed playfully and asked if I needed directions. I assured him I could find it on my own, and indeed, it was hard to miss. The H&H Shooting Sports store is like a small fluorescent city. It’s home to the country’s first National Shooting Sports Foundation’s five-star indoor shooting range, which boasts thirty rifle lanes, twelve pistol lanes, and six air-gun lanes.

Reynolds met me at the door. A tall, fi t man in man in his mid-sixties, he greeted me with twinkling eyes. Together, we passed through scores of aisles with shoulder-high shelves bearing crossbows, arrows, knives, shotguns, rifles, and pistols. An astonishing array of taxidermy stared down at me from various posts on the walls and atop the shelves—bears, large antlered deer, and smaller mammals, the names of which I must have learned in grade school.

“I’ve never been any place like this,” I said, as we worked our way through the maze of weaponry. “And I’ve been to some pretty wild places.”

“Thought so,” he said, smiling.

Reynolds had first noticed the abortion issue in 1992, when the news covered the story of Dr. Nareshkumar Patel: “He was practicing, or murdering, in Warr Acres, Oklahoma. He was caught burning fetal remains in a Shawnee field. I organized a protest at his two clinics. And then I rented a 225-square-foot office in the same complex as his Shawnee clinic. We used it to intervene and counsel women going to Patel’s clinic. I was dragged into legislative office ten years later because of my frustration with political corruption in the state, not because of abortion laws. The problem with abortion is more cultural than legal. Mothers and women are taught to see the unborn child as a thing. It’s a cultural change that’s needed, not a legal one. That doesn’t mean that the pro-life movement won’t do everything possible to change the law. But the culture also has to change.”

“You were in office during this past decade,” I noted, “when the state went from a Democratic to a Republican majority. Has that shift changed the way you view your job?”

“I’m not into coalition building,” Mike responded. “I stand up for what I believe is right. I don’t fight every battle, just the ones I run into.” He laughed. “Seriously, though, I’ve only had five bills passed by the legislature in eleven years, and three of them were vetoed. I tend to spend my energy killing bad laws. I’m more afraid of doing the wrong thing than of not doing the right thing.”

He went on: “The so-called pro-life movement is worried about pragmatics. Tony [Lauinger] takes slow, measured steps. He has his own sense of how to do things. Even though we both want the same outcome. . . . When I was first elected, Tony called me about a bill. He spoke for twenty-six minutes before he asked me what I thought. He’s killed bills behind my back. And now, the Republican leadership has turned against me. They’ve cut me out of committee assignments. There are folks running against me, raising dirt about my past.”

As Reynolds and I chatted, drinking water at H&H’s 4U Café, our conversation veered into the personal. Reynolds spoke with remorse about things he’d done in his youth. There were tears, even though nothing he described struck me as unusual or even particularly blameworthy. The difference was that over the course of time, he had developed a new sense of the meaning and purpose of his life. He regrets not having been a better person. And he lives now with the conscious intent to be the best person he can be.

Reynolds didn’t go “off the record” with me when he spoke of his family, his faith, or his past. He is not a man who worries about the political implications of his personal beliefs.

He believes life begins at conception. He grieves that so many oral contraceptive users don’t understand that the Pill doesn’t merely prevent ovulation, but also stops a fertilized egg from implanting. I disagreed with him, explaining that the vast majority of hormonal contraceptives do work by suppressing ovulation so that the egg never ripens and there is nothing to fertilize, but he dismissed my interruption.

“I didn’t know this fact until recently,” he said. “It pains me enormously. It’s why I supported the Personhood Act in both 2010 and 2012. Tony [Lauinger] argued against it this past term because he was afraid of failure. There were pro-business issues that worried the people from national, and they were calling the shots. Tony went to the Republican leadership and killed the bill. With Tony, it’s always ‘my way or the highway.’”

At high noon, we walked across the store to the paneled event room at the back. The stuffed animal heads gazed down from the walls, watching with feigned indifference. The room was already crowded when we arrived. The women all wore suits, as did around half of the men. The others wore flannel shirts and cowboy boots.

Reynolds steered me toward a tightly coiffed woman in her late fifties. “Hey Sally,” he said, “I’d like to introduce you to Michelle Oberman.”

Representative Sally Kern, who a week earlier had abruptly canceled our appointment, turned and took my hand. “Oh yes, I’ve heard your name. . . .” Suddenly she dropped my hand, her pink-lipsticked lips almost disappearing as she swung away from me.

The Pro-Life Movement Politician

I’ll confess that I was as smitten as I was dumbfounded by my conversation with Reynolds. Like him, I aim to live in accordance with my moral compass. Like him, I feel badly when I fall short of the mark, which is often. Like him, I have a hard time understanding those whose lives seem out of sync with their professed moral sensibilities. At the same time, I was troubled by his moral vision and, even more, by his willingness to use his office to impose it on others. He was convinced he had the truth, and he understood his election as a mandate to align the law with that truth. He had no patience for lawmaking by consensus and compromise. He was a political gadfly.

I gathered that the majority of his colleagues who had canceled their interviews with me belonged to what he termed “the so-called pro-life movement.” And over the course of my time in Oklahoma, it became pretty obvious who controlled that movement.

Reynold’s comments about the negative consequences of his rift with Lauinger over the Personhood Bill in 2012, when Lauinger changed his position and opposed the bill, weren’t entirely surprising. He wasn’t the only one to suggest that “with Tony, it’s always ‘my way or the highway.’” Nor was he the only one to allude to the power Lauinger had to influence which bills were introduced, whether they progressed, and even which legislators were denied key committee assignments. Or worse.

Former Democratic Representative Ryan Kiesel remarked that Lauinger could “use the fear of retribution in a way no one else can.” He recalled the 2010 debate over the Personhood Bill—the one that Lauinger supported, not the one he later lobbied against: “Tony sent letters to all the legislators saying that a vote against the bill would ‘put their seat in jeopardy.’”

In spite of Lauinger’s efforts to keep those in his pro-life network from talking with me, I found a solution in my interview with a former Republican legislator. He asked me not to use his name, so I’ll call him Tom Smith. Smith served over fifteen years in both the state House and Senate, and anticipates a run for higher office in the future. Hence, his desire for anonymity.

Smith ran for office on a job-creation platform, an interest he pursued over the long course of his career in public office. That said, Smith also noted that he is active in the Southern Baptist church. “I knew I was pro-life when I ran for office,” he said. “I campaigned as such, and my voting record is perfect.”

When I asked Smith how he understood the purpose of abortion law, his response was layered. The foundation was familiar: a core moral belief that abortion was murder, and a belief that the law should reflect this conviction. He said, “The purpose of the law is to stop abortion. To send a moral message. To get the message out via the law, to spark a debate in the population. The government’s responsibility is to give people education. It is up to the government to tell them that abortion is wrong. It’s not an acceptable solution.”

Like Reynolds, Smith saw the law as somehow communicating to a hypothetical woman facing an unwanted pregnancy. The law sends her a message that abortion is wrong. But unlike Reynolds, Smith was a career politician. He had his own set of priorities that were unrelated to abortion. He was happy to show his loyalty to the pro-life cause by supporting the party’s abortion agenda. He was able to list the issues, yet he had given little thought to the question of what might happen if the agenda actually became law. Indeed, I was struck by the lack of details in Smith’s vision for what might happen if abortion became a crime. Smith said the ideal replacement for Roe would be a law just like the one that existed in most states before Roe. (And, incidentally, just like the one that El Salvador had before the ban in 1998.)

“I’d favor making it a crime,” he said, “but not under all circumstances. Maybe it would be banned entirely after the first twelve weeks. Or maybe it would allow abortion in the first twelve weeks only in cases of rape and medical necessity and fetal anomaly. And I think the doctors and the state would have to be serious about enforcing these exceptions. If a woman wanted an abortion on the grounds of rape, then they should make sure she actually fi led criminal charges.”

Yet Smith tossed out the alternatives as if they were interchangeable, like competing options in a political platform: “Make it a crime.” “Keep it legal for the first twelve weeks.” “Exceptions for rape.” My sense that he was speaking in slogans, rather than actually thinking about how a change in abortion laws might work, was underscored by his list of the exceptions he’d permit to an abortion ban.

The list itself wasn’t a surprise; he’d simply reverted to familiar old state laws. But the way he talked about closing the “maternal health exception” caught my attention. Many of the pro-life individuals I met talked about the need to close the maternal health loophole, inferring that, before Roe, women had obtained abortions by fabricating claims of mental distress or threatening suicide if they were denied an abortion.

I have not found any data confirming this claim, but I was struck by how often it was invoked over the course of my interviews in Oklahoma and elsewhere. It suggests the power of the pro-life movement to shape the imagination of its members, thereby dictating the terms of the legal landscape.

Lawmakers as Moral Messengers

For all their differences, what Reynolds and Smith had in common was a shared vision of the purpose of abortion law: the law is intended to make a moral condemnation. For example, here’s how Smith responded when I asked him about why he would permit abortion at all, given his convictions: “What is it about rape that makes it OK for a woman to have an abortion? Do you see abortion as somehow less of a murder in those cases?”

“These exceptions reflect my value system,” Smith explained.

“‘Judge not lest you be judged.’ I’m OK with saying to a woman that abortion is wrong, but I’d leave room for a remedy in these cases.” Smith was far from the only person I met who spoke of an unwillingness to judge women who seek abortion under circumstances they viewed as extenuating. What interests me is the tacit willingness to pass judgment on women who seek abortion under all other circumstances.

Both Smith and Reynolds were relatively uninterested in my questions about the law’s likely impact. When I asked Smith how abortion laws should punish violators, and about whether the law would actually deter abortion, these details struck him as secondary concerns. He was resigned to the idea that women would attempt to break the law.

“Well, I’d predict there would be a lot of girls and women who would travel,” he said. “Those who could afford to would go someplace else. And there would be medicine abortions. It’s hard to stop that from happening.”

He seemed nonplussed by these shortcomings; the fact that some people would break the law was not a reason for legalizing the practice. From his perspective, the purpose of the law was to send a clear message about the wrongness of abortion.

MOVEMENT POLITICS AND ABORTION’S LEGISLATIVE AGENDA

I learned three things when I asked people what would happen if Roe were reversed and abortion could once more be outlawed. The first was that the terms of the debate would likely be set by the pro-life movement, rather than by individual, impassioned lawmakers. The second was that those who identified as pro-life wouldn’t yet have a consensus about how the law should look. Finally, I learned that this lack of consensus wouldn’t stop the movement from demanding unwavering loyalty from its members.

Lauinger taught me each of these things.

Lessons from Lauinger

Due to Lauinger thwarting my efforts to meet with pro-life lawmakers, I learned that the pro-life movement in Oklahoma is run by elite outsiders, not by elected officials and not by community organizers. With a single e-mail, a never-elected activist could police the ranks of state officials against an outsider like me. More interesting was the way lawmakers anticipated that Lauinger and the Right to Life movement would shape the legislative agenda if Roe fell and abortion became a crime.

One of the questions I asked everyone I met was what they thought would happen in Oklahoma if Roe v. Wade fell.

Ryan Kiesel, who had served ten years in office fighting for reproductive rights, had a cynical response:

The right doesn’t want to win. They don’t want Roe to fall. Opposing Roe is their template for running for office. It’s their political touchstone. It avoids the need to talk about anything else. If that’s taken away from them, they’re going to have to deal with splits in coalition.

Smith’s prediction evoked similar concerns about fragmentation. “If Roe falls? I’ve honestly never considered it,” he said. He paused for a moment, then added, “There’ll be a huge fight on the right. The activists on the far right will want a complete ban, but the majority would want the exceptions I mentioned (rape, incest, life of the mother). The game of politics will dictate which exceptions make it into the law, because the control of special interests over this issue will be profound. It’s not enough to please the 90 percent who identify as pro-life. You’ll lose office because the 10 percent who are more extreme will organize to defeat you. That’s what happened to Kris Steele.”

Several of the people I interviewed in Oklahoma had mentioned former House Speaker Kris Steele in this tone, as if he’d somehow fallen from grace. Jordan of the Southern Baptist Convention invoked Steele as an example of a politician who was “maybe too collaborative,” noting that he was “certainly seen to have been less reliable on pro-life issues.” Democratic Senator Constance Johnson was more candid in her assessment. “Kris Steele had his lunch fed to him,” she said, “because they didn’t think he was conservative enough. He started to question Tony Lauinger. That was his sin.”

Through the story of what happened to Steele I came to understand both the way in which pro-life movement elites set the agenda for lawmakers and the remorseless manner in which they punish those who deviate from the lockstep obedience they demand from members.

Kris Steele’s Story

Former Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele’s office is literally on the other side of the tracks, in an old brick building on the torn fringes of Oklahoma City. He runs an organization called The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM). It provides job training, counseling, and housing for a lucky few of the hundreds of women who are released from Oklahoma prisons each year. Steele founded the nonprofit after he left office in 2012.

“We have the highest number of female inmates per capita in the world,” Steele told me as he ushered me into the conference room, swinging his lame leg with grace. “They’re here for drug-related crimes—theft, passing bad checks, all secondary to addiction,” he said. “And there’s a 70 percent re-incarceration rate for their children. But it’s impossible to pass even evidence-based sentencing reform without being called soft on crime.”

I pulled out my papers. Steele asked if I’d mind if his intern joined us.

“I’ve been so eager to talk with you,” he said, cutting off my introductory thank-you. “It’s like 'The Big Sort,' you know?”

Embarrassed, I confessed that I did not.

Steele was referring to Bill Bishop’s book, "The Big Sort," which describes the increased homogeneity of American communities over the past four decades—precisely the era since Roe v. Wade was decided. The provocative 2008 book called attention to the fact that we increasingly live in communities that reflect our values, places where we seldom encounter those who hold different viewpoints on core issues.

Bishop and others demonstrate the forty-year migration into value-segregated communities by tracking the number of counties that give landslide victories to either Democratic or Republication candidates. He begins with the 1976 election—a close race even at the county level—when just over 26 percent of American voters lived in counties that voted overwhelmingly for a particular candidate. By 2004, an equally divided electorate revealed a different pattern: 48.3 percent of Americans lived in “landslide” counties—places where the victors won by a margin of 20 percent or more. By 2012, over half of Americans lived in such communities.

The result, according to Bishop, is not simply a cultural sorting, but also an intensification of our differences. Citing research by social psychologists, he explains how, as people hear only their own beliefs reflected and amplified by those around them, they become more extreme in their thinking.

It suddenly hit me: I was as much a mystery to Steele and his intern as they were to me. How often did they meet someone who self-identified as a “liberal Democrat”? Somewhat self-consciously, I turned to my questions.

“Could you tell me about how you got involved with the abortion issue in Oklahoma?”

“As an ordained minister, my faith shapes my beliefs,” Steele began.

I wondered when he became a minister; he looked no more than thirty years old.

“I’d been active in the pro-life movement prior to entering legislative service,” he told me. “I was used to sharing my convictions, having lots of conversations, doing grassroots work on the issue.”

“When did you join the House?”

“I was a representative from 2000 to 2012,” he said, “and I served as speaker during the last two years. I was in the House when it turned Republican. You can skip most of your questions, I bet, because my record shows it: I’m a conservative, pro-life Republican.”

“What was your goal in terms of abortion law reform?” I asked.

“What sort of laws did you want to pass?”

Steele answered, “If you call a law pro-life in Oklahoma, it passes. No one has time to read all the bills, so the debate is reduced to, ‘If you’re pro-life, you’ll support this bill.’ Take the ‘Safeguards for IVF’ bill. It banned compensation for donating eggs. Somehow the money triggered fearmongering about women’s exploitation, and we thought it was OK to bring the government into the lives of infertile couples. It was hard, in retrospect, to see how the bill was pro-life. Perhaps it was just pro-Catholic.

“It was my biggest regret in office—voting ‘yes’ on that bill,” he added. “I only understood when one of my loyal constituents confided in me that his two precious children would not exist had they been unable to pay their egg donor.”

“After that vote,” Steele continued, “I realized the complexity of these issues and I started working for systemic change. I spent two years revamping Medicaid so it was a transparent, efficient, well-run program. It’s the thing I feel most proud of.”

I learned later, from those to Steele’s right and left alike, that he’d responded to his constituent’s story by campaigning against the 2010 in vitro fertilization bill in the State Senate. He succeeded, and the bill was voted down.

Steele left government in 2012, when he had reached the term limits, but my conversations with others suggested there was a more complicated story behind his departure.

One senior Republican lobbyist, speaking anonymously, tied Steele’s fall from grace to the 2010 Personhood Act—the one Lauinger supported.

“When Steele kept the 2010 Personhood Bill from reaching the House floor,” he said, “he took the blame, even though the entire caucus voted with him.”

Steele told me that out-of-state advocates had been pushing the 2010 Personhood Bill, wanting to use Oklahoma as a test case: “We already had a law saying life begins at conception. Why did we need one saying ‘Constitutional rights attach at conception’? It’s not possible to give the unborn the right to vote, so it seemed redundant to me.”

In one of his final acts as House Speaker, Steele facilitated the 2010 Republican caucus’s vote not to schedule the Personhood Bill for a hearing. He told me that the majority of the caucus had supported his decision to defer consideration of the bill, noting that it made sense in view of the proximity of the controversial vote to the general election. But in its aftermath, he alone took the blame for having scuttled the pro-life bill.

After the bill died, Steele said, “Church folk sent emails to me saying things like, ‘I wish you’d never been born.’”

Lessons from Steele’s Story

What are we to make of the way pro-life advocates regarded Steele’s opposition to a single bill—one that the movement itself rejected in the very next legislative cycle—as a sign that he was not “reliably pro-life”?

The story sheds light on the ways in which single-issue advocates achieve their goals. It is a great example of what happens in state legislatures in response to many highly charged issues. Those who care most deeply are willing to invest time and money to influence their lawmakers. Those whose interests are more diffuse don’t bother to raise their voices or to advocate loudly for a contrary position unless and until they too begin to care deeply about the issue.

It’s called public choice theory, and it takes as its starting point the observation that, on any given issue, there are those who care deeply about it, and those who don’t care as much. In the abortion context, those who are most motivated to make legislators hear their voices are those who believe that abortion is murder and should be banned. Their sense of urgency fuels the pro-life movement, giving it an outsized influence on the legislative process.

There’s no real way to know whether their position on abortion is a majority view, but it turns out that that question is almost irrelevant. Their viewpoint will continue to hold sway until it offends the sensibilities of enough of those holding a contrary view that they, in turn, are prompted to mobilize in opposition. This phenomenon is precisely what Kiesel and Smith meant when they referred to the political battles likely to ensue should Roe fall.

I was amazed at how much admiration and heartache I felt for Steele. Amazed because his views on abortion were, at least in one sense, more extreme than anyone else I interviewed. He alone was comfortable endorsing the prosecution of women for abortion. “I’d expect there to be punitive consequences for blatant offenders of the law,” he said, without hesitation. “Of course, I’d also incentivize carrying to term, but the core function of government is to protect its citizenry, so there must be consequences for those who break abortion laws.”

What drew me in was the extent to which Steele expressed compassion for women facing an unwanted pregnancy. Smith had shrugged off the likelihood that women with enough money would evade the law by traveling. He seemed untroubled by the way the law would have a disproportionate impact on poor women. To him, the question of whether the law would stop abortions was almost beside the point.

Steele’s response was different.

“Of course,” he said, as we ended our conversation about abortion laws, “the best way to lower abortion rates is to deal with what causes women to want to abort in the first place.”

Alone among the pro-life lawmakers and activists I met Steele has direct experience working with poor women. Like the others, he wants the law to send the message that abortion is wrong. But only he seemed ready to acknowledge how little a change in the law will do to stop women from seeking abortions.

CONCLUSION

As I left Oklahoma that summer, I realized I’d learned a lot about the connection between morality, symbolism, and abortion laws. The message that abortion should be a crime was so pervasive that I suspected most Oklahomans no longer noticed it. At first I felt as though I couldn’t escape it. It was on the billboards: “Abortion stops a beating heart.” It was on the counter in the gym, where they sold Plexiglas photo key chains that said, “It’s a life, not a choice” around the edges. It was there on the “I survived Roe v. Wade” bumper stickers on the trucks I passed on the highway.

After a while, I got used to the signs and the emblems. Images of fetuses became part of the landscape, like American flags or the crimson and cream of the University of Oklahoma Sooners. The pro-life messages were so ubiquitous that they faded into the background. But it’s not a tranquil background. Instead, these messages generate an ominous sense that things are awry, and that it’s on each of us to put them right again.

The mystery is how making abortion illegal will put things right. The battle over abortion law seems utterly disconnected from Steele’s observation that “the best way to lower abortion rates is to deal with what causes women to want to abort in the first place.” Doesn’t everyone agree with him?

Oklahoma’s ambitious body of abortion-restrictive laws is a testimony to the belief that the law matters. And if nothing else, the epic battle over abortion suggests that both sides share that belief: we take it for granted that changing abortion laws will change things in the lives of women facing unplanned pregnancies.


Michelle Oberman

Michelle Oberman is the Katharine and George Alexander Professor of Law at Santa Clara University School of Law and an internationally recognized scholar on the legal and ethical issues surrounding adolescence, pregnancy, and motherhood. She works at the intersection of public health and criminal law, focusing on domestic and international issues affecting women’s reproductive health. Her book "When Mothers Kill" (2008) won the Outstanding Book Award from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.

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