OKLAHOMA CITY — Pro-life activists and legislators say Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican who has described herself as strongly pro-life, betrayed them when she recently vetoed a bill that would have made it illegal for doctors in Oklahoma to perform abortions.
Several figures who pushed S.B. 1552 — also known as the Protect Life Initiative — through the Oklahoma Legislature told the Register that Fallin assured them in a meeting last October that she supported the initiative. They said the governor expressed no reservations about the bill, which passed both chambers of the legislature by overwhelming majorities.
But on May 20, a week before the current legislative session was scheduled to end, Fallin vetoed the bill. In her veto letter to lawmakers, Fallin said the bill’s language was too vague and ambiguous, and she expressed doubts that the law would survive a legal challenge.
“While I consistently have and continue to support a re-examination of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, this legislation cannot accomplish that re-examination,” Fallin wrote.
Paul Blair, a local Baptist pastor, who initiated the legislation a year ago, told the Register that he was “absolutely stunned” with the veto. He described the governor’s explanation as “nonsense,” adding that the lawyers representing the group of pastors and lawmakers who championed the bill said the legislation was legally sound.
“Quite frankly, it’s our suspicion that she succumbed to political pressure,” Blair said.
Oklahoma state Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, who authored the bill, told the Register that the governor’s veto will likely be the final word in this legislative session because there does not appear to be the necessary two-thirds majority vote in the legislature to override the veto.
There was also the possibility of introducing an amended version of the bill, but Dahm said the governor’s office indicated that Fallin would not be supportive of signing the amended legislation before the session ended. Dahm said he also disagreed with Fallin’s reasoning for rejecting the bill.
“To say it would be struck down is not her decision to make,” Dahm said. “To make that decision for the courts indicates she was trying to protect the courts from making that decision, or that she feels she’s no longer just in the executive branch, but she now has jurisdiction over the judicial branch also.”
No Advance Notice
Despite pro-life leaders saying that she had promised them her support, a spokesman for the governor told The Washington Post that Fallin does not commit to legislation until she sees a final version of the bill on her desk, since it can change during the legislative process. However, lawyer Mat Staver, the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, told the Register that Fallin never intervened or expressed doubts during the legislative discussions on the bill.
“Her veto was a betrayal of her word,” said Staver, who added that if he and others knew beforehand that Fallin had reservations about the bill, they may not have proceeded with pushing the proposed law through both chambers of the state legislature.
As for the actual bill itself, Staver argued it was a legally sound law rooted in the U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment, which expresses the principle of federalism, saying that the federal government possesses only powers delegated to it by the Constitution and that all remaining powers are reserved for the states.
In the case of S.B. 1552, the bill’s supporters say the state has the authority to issue and regulate medical licenses. The bill would have prohibited licensed doctors in Oklahoma from performing an abortion, with an exception to save the life of the mother. A doctor in violation of the law would have his or her medical license revoked.
The bill also says that anyone who performs an abortion upon a pregnant woman in Oklahoma would be guilty of a felony, punishable by a prison sentence of one to three years.
Staver described the bill as a “bold stand in defense of human life.”
“People are tired of putting their finger in the wind to see if they’re going to get five votes on the Supreme Court,” said Staver, adding that Liberty Counsel offered to defend the bill in court.
“They knew it would be challenged. Virtually any abortion-related law would be challenged. It’s no surprise it would end up in litigation,” Staver said.
“Our lawyers were very confident in tackling this issue, and, unfortunately, [Fallin] cut the legs out from underneath us,” Dahm said.
Blair also argued the bill’s legal merits from a 10th Amendment perspective.
“States have issued all sorts of regulations of what they consider to be good behavior for doctors,” Blair said. “We don’t consider that asking a doctor to actually uphold the Hippocratic Oath is unreasonable.”
A legal challenge against S.B. 1552 would almost surely cite the legal standard that states cannot pass laws that create an undue burden for women seeking an abortion. With the exception of the mother’s life being at risk, the law would have essentially made abortion illegal in Oklahoma, since no licensed doctor would be legally allowed to perform the procedure.
In the press release announcing her veto, Fallin’s office described S.B. 1552 as “an unconstitutional anti-abortion bill.” In a letter to Fallin, the Center for Reproductive Rights, an organization that defends legal abortion in court, called the bill “blatantly unconstitutional” that conflicted with virtually all of the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion-related precedents.
In a prepared statement provided to the Register, Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, while not specifically addressing S.B. 1552, said he appreciated Oklahoma leaders’ “recognition of the dignity and sanctity of every human life, from conception to its natural end.”
Said the archbishop, “Every life is precious and has infinite value in the eyes of God, who creates each of us out of love. We must reject the throwaway mentality that values human beings merely on the basis of their usefulness, health, age or economic status. We can offer a compassionate and understanding pathway toward this renewal of our culture.”
Fallin’s veto may have already created an opening for the first new abortion facility to open in Oklahoma since the early 1970s. Currently, there are only two abortion businesses in the state. The day after the veto, an online article appeared in Rolling Stone magazine featuring Julie Burkhart, the CEO of Trust Women and owner of South Wind Women’s Center in Wichita, Kan. Burkhart told the magazine that she is in the process of opening an abortion facility in Oklahoma City and added that she had been taking a wait-and-see approach as to what Fallin would do with the bill.
“As you read some questions in the article, it appears that our bill really had them over a barrel,” Blair said. “They weren’t sure if they were going to be able to hire doctors in the state of Oklahoma, if those doctors ran the risk of losing their medical licenses if they performed an abortion.”
“Literally, our pro-life governor rescued this clinic,” Blair added.
Fallin’s Pro-Life Credentials
In her press release, Fallin defended her pro-life credentials, noting that she has signed 18 bills supporting pro-life values and protecting the health and lives of mothers and their unborn children. Americans United for Life, a national legal pro-life organization, honored Oklahoma as the most pro-life state in the country for enacting legislation last year to protect women and unborn children.
In a prepared statement provided to the Register, Clarke Forsythe, acting president and senior counsel of Americans United for Life, said: “There is no reason to doubt that Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin is pro-life. She has signed several pro-life bills in a state with an impressive track record for defending life.”
Forsythe added, “Her veto may be simply a practical judgment that the state is already defending a number of important pro-life bills which deserved her full attention.”
Even as the prospect of overriding the veto appeared to diminish as the legislative session drew to a close, Blair said he hoped lawmakers elsewhere would muster up the courage to defend unborn life.
Said Blair, “God willing, another state will take up our idea and bring it to fruition.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.