Oklahoma "personhood" bill fails in Legislature

OKLAHOMA CITY Thu Apr 19, 2012 9:29pm EDT

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OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - A proposed 'personhood' law in Oklahoma that would grant embryos full rights as people from the moment of conception failed in the state's Legislature without coming to a vote in the House of Representatives, lawmakers said on Thursday.

The bill, which backers hoped would provide a path to roll back the constitutional right to an abortion, had sailed through the Oklahoma Senate in February by a 34-8 vote. Many thought the Republican-dominated House would rubber-stamp the bill.

But Republican lawmaker Sally Kern said the measure failed before reaching the floor of the House.

Republicans have a majority in both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature, and Republican Governor Mary Fallin, who opposes abortion, had been expected to sign the bill into law.

Missouri is the only state so far with such a "personhood" law on its books establishing legal rights for embryos, although similar initiatives have been proposed in a handful of states.

They include last autumn's failed attempt in Mississippi to enact a personhood amendment to the state constitution and a similar proposal in Virginia that was put on hold by the Legislature until next year.

While the Oklahoma personhood bill did not expressly bar abortion, abortion-rights advocates have said there was nothing to stop hospital administrators or local law enforcement agencies from restricting or criminalizing abortions under such a law.

If an embryo has full legal rights, abortion would represent murder. The bill, which had been amended nearly two dozen times in committee, did not carve out exceptions for rape or incest.

"Personhood proposals are dangerous," said Martha Skeeters, president of the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice.

She said she was gratified the personhood bill was killed, saying the legislation would threaten commonly used contraceptives, fertility treatments and other medical procedures.

The bill did say that nothing in the law would bar the use of in-vitro fertilization or interfere with the disposal of unused embryos or their use in stem cell research. Nor would the bill have barred contraception measures such as the "morning-after" pill or treatment for ectopic pregnancies, in which the pregnancy occurs outside the womb.

The bill, like personhood measures in other states, has been controversial within the anti-abortion camp, with some fearing the strategy could backfire by provoking the U.S. Supreme Court to strike it down.

CHALLENGING ROE V. WADE

The initiatives were designed to provoke legal challenges from abortion-rights supporters, with the ultimate goal of giving the Supreme Court a vehicle to overturn its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, according to Keith Mason, a leader of the movement.

Oklahoma's bill sought to go further than Missouri's in challenging Roe v. Wade by not including language acknowledging that it defers to the court and Constitution.

State Representative Randy Terrill, a conservative Republican, called the announcement of the bill's failure "stunning" and complained the speaker "threw the caucus under the bus."

"There was no vote in the caucus," he complained. Instead, there was a private "whip count" in which party floor leaders polled fellow Republicans on the matter, Terrill said.

Many in the Oklahoma medical community had spoken out against the bill after it passed the Oklahoma Senate, and Terrill said there was a belief among some that business leaders disliked the personhood bill.

(Reporting By Steve Olafson; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Peter Cooney)

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