Oregon’s risky pro-life pushback
Pro-life groups say the political risks Oregon’s pro-life senators took in their majority pro-abortion legislature should be an example to other states
On each day that was marked as an “opinion day” on the U.S. Supreme Court calendar last June, Oregon Right to Life political director Sharolyn Smith and her colleagues checked the court’s website, “constantly refreshing the page,” she said. They were on the lookout for the final ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that overturned Roe v. Wade, giving states the freedom to pass laws protecting unborn life from abortion.
“One morning we opened it up, and there it was,” Smith said, thinking back to June 24, 2022, the day the decision appeared on the court’s website. “There were so many emotions. It was tears. It was fear. It was, ‘What do we do now? What’s going to happen?’”
Dobbs meant states with existing pro-life laws could enforce them and shut down abortion facilities. In other states, like Oregon, the ruling had little to no immediate effect. Oregon law already allowed abortion at any time and for any reason, and strong pro-abortion majorities in the legislature meant it would stay that way—at least for now. But Smith said Dobbs still reinvigorated her and other pro-lifers in the state.
“It feels like we have more room to do [our work],” she said. “We’re not waiting on [the] federal government to move anything. It’s up to the state. It’s up to the people and their elected representatives. … We have an ability to make change in the state.”
Oregon’s first post-Dobbs legislative session ended Sunday. Pro-life lawmakers played defense, risking their political futures to push back majority attempts to expand abortion even further.
Pro-life senators ended the state’s longest legislative walkout on June 15 after six weeks of protesting Democratic bills. Even though the move could cost pro-lifers seats in the state Senate, advocacy groups say the legislators’ boldness should set an example to pro-life lawmakers across the country.
Starting on May 3, the 12 Republicans and one Independent in the 30-member body strategically avoided the Senate chamber to prevent the two-thirds quorum of lawmakers required by the state constitution to proceed with business. That stalled the session’s remaining bills. Democrats said Republicans started the walkout specifically because of abortion and other partisan issues. But Republicans maintained that the Democrats’ legislation violated a 1979 state law requiring lawmakers to present bill summaries written at a reading level accessible for an eighth grade reading level.
One bill at the center of the walkout—already passed in the House—included language to expand access to transgender-related surgeries and a list of provisions to advance a pro-abortion agenda. One of those provisions would have explicitly allowed minors to abort their babies without notifying their parents.
Back in May, the senators said they would return to the chamber on June 25, the last day of the session, to pass “lawful, substantially bipartisan budgets and bills” and avoid a threatened government shutdown. But the Senate reached a quorum 10 days earlier than planned after lawmakers came to an agreement. Among other things, the pro-abortion legislators agreed to remove the language supporting abortions on minors without parental consent. They took out another section that would have mandated university health centers to provide emergency contraception and abortion pills to students.
Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp noted other changes. The new version removed language that would have decriminalized the act of concealing an infant’s death and clarified the right to peacefully protest and pray near an abortion facility. He said Democrats also agreed to drop a separate joint resolution that would have codified protections for abortion into the state constitution.
Pro-life lawmakers still voted against the revised bill, but it passed the Senate on June 15, and the House approved the changes on June 21. Oregon Right to Life praised the concessions but added that the amendments “do not resolve all of our concerns.” For one, the law prohibits state officials from holding abortionists liable for violating other states’ laws protecting unborn babies from abortion.
Because of the walkout, the pro-life lawmakers might be barred from running for reelection. Oregon voters in November approved a constitutional amendment that disqualifies a lawmaker with 10 or more unexcused absences from running in the next election. Knopp said all 12 Republicans and the one Independent in the chamber participated in the strike in some way and that all but three surpassed their 10 unexcused absences. He estimated that most of those 10 have close to 30 or 40 unexcused absences each.
“We will take any legal action to overturn those provisions on plain language and constitutional grounds,” Knopp said. “And we will likely be doing that in federal court over the next few weeks or months.”
But there’s a possibility that most of the Senate’s pro-life lawmakers won’t return after the next election. Despite that, Smith said she and her colleagues at Oregon Right to Life were in “full support” of the walkout from the beginning. Adam Schwend, western regional director for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said his organization also supports “political calculations, the political risks” the lawmakers took and is not concerned about losing pro-life seats. Even if the state bars those legislators from running again, Schwend said he expects their constituents to send similarly dedicated pro-life leaders back to the capital in their place.
“It showed that they valued unborn human life more than they valued their political careers,” Schwend said. “That should be an example for state legislators in other states. And it really should be an example for members of Congress.”
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