High Court Declines Oklahoma “Personhood” Case

  • October 30, 2012
  • By Jim Malewitz

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review an Oklahoma Supreme Court decision to block a ballot measure that would outlaw abortion in the state.

Its refusal came in a one-sentence order on Monday (October 29).

The case stems from a national anti-abortion group's effort to gather enough signatures to place an initiative on Oklahoma's 2012 ballot that would amend the definition of “person” in the constitution to include humans from the moment of conception, granting full constitutional rights and protections to every fertilized egg.

The sweeping definition would not only outlaw abortion in all instances, including rape, incest and a mother's failing health, its critics argue, it would also bar some forms of contraception and medical interventions like in vitro fertilization, while placing legal suspicion on any miscarriage.

The Oklahoma secretary of state approved the initiative's language in March, but a quick challenge and state Supreme Court ruling stopped backers from gathering signatures. In a brief decision, the court said the measure was “clearly unconstitutional,” citing the U.S. Supreme Court's 20-year-old ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which struck down Pennsylvania's restrictions on abortion.

“The Oklahoma State Supreme Court was right to block this callous amendment from the state ballot,” Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “Pure and simple, these tactics are an affront to our nation's Constitution and a bald-faced attempt to foreclose women's access to a full range of reproductive health care.”

Northrup's group joined with the American Civil Liberties Union in challenging the initiative.

The group behind the initiative, Personhood USA, is pushing such laws in all 50 states in an attempt to prompt the nation's high court to revisit its Roe v. Wade ruling. None has been enacted, though last session the Virginia House passed a personhood bill that later stalled. Last November, voters in Mississippi rejected a personhood amendment that raised reservations in the medical community.

Mat Staver, founder of the Liberty Counsel, a partner with Personhood USA, contends the Oklahoma decision “has no precedential value.”

“The issue is not about the merits of personhood but about whether a state court can interfere with the rights of citizens to gather signatures to amend their constitutions,” he said.  “On the issue, the Oklahoma Supreme Court decision is wrong.”

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