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Extremist Personhood Initiatives Prove To Be a Losing Strategy. Help Us Continue to Win the War on Women

Illustration of two women back to back embracing their pregnant bodies.
Illustration of two women back to back embracing their pregnant bodies.
Talcott Camp,
ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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May 1, 2012

In the midst of endless attacks on women’s health, there have been a few recent victories worth celebrating. Yesterday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a group calling itself “Personhood USA” cannot use the ballot initiative process to ban abortion (and contraception, in vitro fertilization, and miscarriage treatment as well). Intent on granting legal rights to fertilized eggs, these anti-choice activists sought to strip women of their right to determine when and whether to access those critical health care services. The court correctly reasoned that such a ban is “repugnant to the Constitution of the United States,” and that allowing it on the ballot would therefore result in nothing but “a costly and futile election.” The ACLU and the ACLU of Oklahoma, along with the Center for Reproductive Rights, challenged the initiative in March, and on behalf of the state’s women and families, we are enormously grateful and relieved that it won’t be on the ballot in November.

And just last week, a similar piece of legislation — S.B. 1433, the “Personhood Bill” — stalled in the Oklahoma House, and so cannot pass the Oklahoma legislature this year. It had passed in the Oklahoma Senate, but then the extremists overplayed their hand in the House. Asked repeatedly by representatives if the bill would ban abortion, they claimed it would not, but then refused to support amendments that would have protected women’s access to abortion care, showing the true purpose behind the bill. In a stunning loss last Wednesday, one of the sponsors sought just 15 other politicians to stand up with him — not to vote for the bill, but just to force the full House to vote on it. Even for that limited purpose, he couldn’t get 15 colleagues to stand up. That is an unprecedented victory in a state that has passed just about every other extreme, anti-woman bill imaginable. Did Oklahoma representatives feel lied to? Did they respond to the mass outrage the bill generated, summed up in the now celebrated poster, “If I wanted the Government in my womb, I’d f#%k a senator”?

Whatever the exact reason, something has shifted. Politicians are beginning to realize that extremist positions such as criminalizing abortion care will win them some votes, but will cost them more. As the “war on women” marches on, a critical mass of women and allies have stood up, spoken up, and changed the political winds.

So where do we go from here? First, we need to realize that when we raised our voices, we made a difference. For too long, we have assumed that those who want to turn back the clock on women’s health have more money and more focus than we do, and that it therefore won’t matter if we push back against their extremism. That’s not true. Our wave of outrage has dramatically changed the course of the legislative session in Virginia, Oklahoma and elsewhere. So let’s celebrate — we’ve protected women and families, and we should be proud.

But then we need to get back to work: although the tide is turning, in the short term, we are still seeing more defeats than victories. It is time to turn up the heat, until politicians in all parties understand that selling women out is not just immoral, it’s a losing strategy. How do we make this happen? The next time you get a request from the ACLU or another women’s health advocate to sign a petition, send an email, make a call, or join a march, DO IT! And believe that it will make a difference, because it will.

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