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Oklahoma Supreme Court strikes down embryo 'personhood' initiative

8 May 2012
Appeared in BioNews 655

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has declared void a ballot initiative that would have asked voters to expand the definition of a person in the state constitution to include human embryos and fetuses.

The unanimous ruling that the measure was 'clearly unconstitutional' has dealt a further set-back to pro-life campaign groups in the state, after the Oklahoma House of Representatives refused to vote on a separate legislative measure to grant embryos legal personhood.

Opponents said the ballot initiative would not only ban all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest, but could also prohibit certain forms of contraception including the morning after pill and the intra-uterine device. It could have also had an impact on the provision of IVF in the state, as all procedures involving the destruction of embryos, including embryonic stem cell research, would have been affected.

Pro-life campaign group Personhood Oklahoma initiated the petition to amend the state's constitution to define a person as 'any human being from the beginning of biological development'. The Supreme Court ruling followed a claim filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) arguing the initiative was unconstitutional.

'This amendment would have run roughshod over the fundamental, constitutionally protected reproductive rights of all Oklahoma women', said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the CRR. She called the ruling 'a powerful blow against the repugnant tactics of those who seek to vote down the rights of others'.

This latest defeat follows a ruling in Nebraska last December that the wording of a 'personhood' petition was too vague to be put to the public, while in both Mississippi and Colorado a similar amendment was voted down in public ballots last year.

Some commentators have pointed to the unanimous nature of the Oklahoma ruling, suggesting that it may be a 'bellwether' for future cases. However, the director of Personhood Oklahoma, Dan Skerbitz, said: 'The people of Oklahoma will not be silenced'. The group says it will now attempt to appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court, claiming that the ruling 'epitomises judicial overreaching'.

Earlier in April the Oklahoma House of Representatives refused to bring a legislative bill called the Personhood Act to the vote before the legislature adjourned, preventing it from passing into law. The Personhood Act had appeared to be gathering momentum in Oklahoma, passing in the state Senate by 34 votes to eight. However, the Republican Caucus decided not to put the bill to a vote.

Speaking to CapitolBeatOK, Martha Skeeters, president of the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice (OCRJ), said: 'The OCRJ is gratified that [...] the Personhood bill [...] is dead in the Legislature. This extreme bill had the potential to harm Oklahoma families by threatening contraception, assisted reproductive technologies and other necessary medical services'.

A similar measure that extends murder and assault laws to cover early stages of pregnancy has passed the legislative stages in Tennessee, however.

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3 September 2012 - by Dr Kimberley Bryon-Dodd 
A proposal to extend the definition of human life to 'all human beings at any stage of development' has failed to gain enough support to be put to a public vote in Colorado, USA...
3 September 2012 - by Victoria Kay 
The US Court of Appeals has upheld a ruling permitting the use of federal funds for research involving human embryonic stem cells....
20 August 2012 - by Sarah Pritchard 
Views held by Paul Ryan – the man chosen by US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney to be his running mate – that life begins at fertilisation have caused a media furore in North America....
15 May 2012 - by Dr Jackie Leach Scully 
We know very little about what 'ordinary' lay members of faith groups - those who are not scientists, philosophers or religious leaders - think about the acceptability of new reproductive and genetic technologies. A team of researchers from Newcastle and Durham Universities is currently carrying out research exploring some of these issues and would like your help...
2 April 2012 - by Rosie Beauchamp 
Civil liberty groups in the USA have filed a legal challenge to the 'personhood' ballot initiative in Oklahoma, as a separate measure known as the Personhood Act progresses through the State legislature...
27 February 2012 - by Rosie Beauchamp 
The Republican controlled state Senate of Oklahoma passed the 'Personhood Act' by 34 votes to eight on 15 February. The Act moves to extend the definition of 'person' under State law to include a fetus from the point of conception...
21 November 2011 - by Dr Morven Shearer 
On 8 November the Mississippi electorate voted against an amendment to the Bill of Rights in their state Constitution which would have redefined life as beginning at the moment of fertilisation – the so-called 'personhood amendment' (Proposition 26)...
14 November 2011 - by Rachel Lloyd 
Voters in the US state of Mississippi have voted against a proposed constitutional amendment that would have defined life as beginning at fertilisation. The proposed amendment would have afforded embryos and fetuses – whether conceived naturally or artificially - similar legal protection as that covering all US citizens but was rejected by over 55 per cent of voters on 8 November...
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