Diverging pro-life strategies in Oklahoma
One pro-life group in Oklahoma pushes to add exceptions for rape and incest out of concern for possible future pro-life losses
In the excitement surrounding the expected release of the Dobbs decision last year, people may have missed that Oklahoma shut down abortion facilities even before the overturn of Roe v. Wade. Paul Abner didn’t. As president of the lobbyist group Oklahoma Faith Leaders, Abner spends time in the state capitol advocating for legislation and building relationships with lawmakers. He found out through phone calls that abortion facilities planned to halt abortions once Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill allowing private citizens to sue anyone who performs an abortion, except for the woman herself. Stitt signed it on May 25, 2022.
The memory still brings tears to Abner’s eyes. “Let me tell you, it was—honest to goodness—it was just a special time for us, because we’ve worked so hard on this for so long,” he said. After the overturn of Roe, another state law took effect enacting criminal penalties for abortionists who abort a baby at any stage of pregnancy.
A year later, in the final week of Oklahoma’s first post-Dobbs legislative session that ended Friday, a state pro-life organization pushed for a bill to add rape and incest exceptions back into the existing law. The bill didn’t pass. But the effort and the strong opposition to it highlight diverging strategies for protecting babies from abortion in the post-Roe era.
Today, some Oklahoma lawmakers claim the state has the strongest pro-life laws in the country. The state-enforced criminal law only makes exceptions if the life of the mother is in danger. The state’s civil enforcement law does not allow private citizens to sue an abortionist in cases of abortion due to rape or incest. But early in the 2023 session, Abner found out through the capitol grapevine about a bill authored by Republican Sen. Julie Daniels that would have added rape and incest exceptions to the criminal law.
“We’ve worked with [Daniels] closely in the past on pro-life legislation,” said Abner. “I have nothing but respect for her. I don’t agree with her on this one.”
One of the bill’s primary opponents was Republican Rep. Jim Olsen. He and some of his pro-life colleagues, including Sen. Nathan Dahm, shared a video online outlining their concerns with the bill. Dahm said the video was instrumental in keeping the bill from advancing.
Olsen estimated that allowing abortions in cases of rape or incest would mean legalizing the abortions of about 200 babies a year in Oklahoma. He objects to this because he believes the baby’s right to life does not depend on the quality of his or her parents. Olsen said it’s not the legislature’s role to decide who gets to live or die. “Now that we have full protection for all unborn babies, why would we want to back up?” he asked.
The legislation never made it to the Senate floor. But days before the last week of the session, language from the bill appeared in amendments to another bill that originally clarified that the state’s abortion law doesn’t affect access to contraception. It died with the close of the session.
Throughout the session, the state’s National Right to Life affiliate Oklahomans for Life championed the bill. State Chairman Tony Lauinger issued a statement to supporters on May 22 about this “last chance” to pass the language, calling it “essential pro-life legislation” that aims to “provide permanent protection for future generations of Oklahoma children.”
While Lauinger recognized that some didn’t consider the bill to be pro-life enough, he urged supporters to consider the significant losses the pro-life movement had faced since Dobbs: six pro-abortion victories in statewide ballot initiatives and another loss in a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court election. Oklahoma abortion activists in December halted efforts to put a question on the ballot that could add a right to abortion to the state constitution. At the time, according to The Oklahoman, the leader of the citizen-led initiative said organizers wanted to “pause, recalibrate the timing of signature collection, and build our coalition to increase our chance of getting the signatures required.”
Lauinger cited polling from WPA Intelligence that shows only 4 percent of Oklahoma voters support the current law while 71 percent support rape and incest exceptions.
“The abortion industry has huge advantages in money and pro-abortion media bias, and the initiative-petition process in our state leaves us totally dependent on ‘the consent of the governed,’” Lauinger wrote. The pro-life movement, he said, has two choices: add in these rape and incest exceptions or “take the short-term approach” that could bolster a pro-abortion victory at the ballot box. In the second scenario, Lauinger described the adoption of an amendment allowing abortion on demand as a “when,” not an “if.”
Olsen questioned the stats Lauinger cited, saying that polling results vary significantly depending on the types of questions asked. For example, WPA Intelligence did not specifically ask voters if they would support a ballot measure adding a right to abortion to the constitution. In Olsen’s mind, there’s no evidence that pro-lifers will have a better chance of winning a ballot question if they add these exceptions. “And when we’re talking about, ‘Oh, if we rely on these statistics, we slaughter 200 babies,’ that is absolutely ridiculous to think that could be okay,” Olsen said.
Despite the bill’s requirement that rape and incest cases first be reported to law enforcement, Dahm voiced his concern that the measure could allow abortion facilities to reopen. He said he’s heard of pro-abortion groups coaching women on how to claim rape in order to obtain an abortion. The bill, he said, provided no “parameters or specifics, necessarily, that would have safeguarded against those false accusations.”
Zack Gingrich-Gaylord, communications director for the abortion business Trust Women Foundation, confirmed in a phone call Thursday that the organization’s Oklahoma City location is not doing any abortions, even though the state allows abortion if the mother’s life is in danger. Trust Women still provides contraception and transgender-related interventions.
Gingrich-Gaylord said adding the exception language would be a “step in the right direction” for abortion advocates in the state. But, depending on the wording of the exceptions, it would likely not be enough to allow facilities to resume abortions. “I don’t see that those are typically very effective,” he said. Pro-abortion groups often lobby for rape and incest exceptions, but to Gingrich-Gaylord, even those exceptions aren’t enough. Abortion advocates want abortion on demand.
Phone calls to Tulsa Women’s Clinic and the Abortion Surgery Center in Norman revealed that those facilities are closed. None of the websites of the four Planned Parenthood centers in the state list abortions among their “services” offered, although at least one makes abortion referrals to facilities outside of the state.
In Oklahoma City, David Lewis at ministry GoLife said the group’s mobile ultrasound unit is still parked across from Trust Women two days a week, even though abortions have stopped there. Since Dobbs, he said, the number of women coming to GoLife for free ultrasounds and referrals to community resources has increased.
Lewis recognizes that abortions are still happening in Oklahoma—just not in abortion facilities. “We believe we are missing many … because of the easy access to chemical abortions, which flies under the radar,” Lewis said. “Unfortunately, this is the new reality.”
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