Center for Reproductive Rights Launches Legal Challenge to Keep Abortion and Contraception Ban Off Oklahoma Ballot

Ballot initiative also threatens fertility treatments and medical care for pregnant women

(PRESS RELEASE) Oklahoma’s proposed ballot initiative to define a fertilized egg as a “person” is blatantly unconstitutional and should be blocked from the Oklahoma ballot, according to a new lawsuit filed today by Center for Reproductive Rights as lead counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union, and local Oklahoma partners. The initiative, if passed, would effectively ban all abortions and many types of birth control—and severely threaten fertility treatments such as in-vitro fertilization.
 
Today’s pre-election challenge filed in the Oklahoma Supreme Court, argues that if the constitutional amendment proposed by the initiative petition were to become effective, it would clearly violate women’s right to decide whether and when to conceive and carry a pregnancy to term, which is protected by the federal Constitution.
 
Further, the suit argues that the initiative signature sheet is so deceptive and misleading about what the initiative would actually do, voters would not have sufficient information about effects of the proposed amendment.
 
“This proposed amendment violates the federal constitution and seriously threatens the rights, life, and health of all Oklahoma women,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “We are confident the court will block this petition from ever making it to the Oklahoma ballot. Our fundamental rights are not and must never be subject to a ballot initiative.”
 
Today’s lawsuit was brought on behalf of Oklahoma physicians who  provide a range of reproductive health care to women in Oklahoma—including contraceptives, abortion care, prenatal care and infertility treatment— as well as individual women who would be affected by the amendment.
 
Initiative Petition 395 (State Question 761) aims to amend the Oklahoma state constitution to define a person as “any human being from the beginning of biological development.” In rewriting the ballot title portion of the initiative pamphlet, the state attorney general explained that this means “fertilization, which is the fusion of a female egg with a human male sperm to form a new cell.”
 
The ballot initiative would completely ban abortion under all circumstances, including in cases of rape and incest or when a woman’s life or health is at risk, as well as ban most forms of hormonal birth control such as IUDs. The amendment also has the potential to impact a wide range of other medical care, including treatment of ectopic pregnancy, in-vitro fertilization, stem cell research, and medical treatment for pregnant women.
 
Further, if passed, this proposal would create serious legal problems for doctors who provide care to a pregnant woman, as it could criminalize any conduct that might harm a fetus. Pregnant women who suffer complications or miscarriages could be subject to criminal investigations.
 
Such a proposed law is so extreme, no state has ever enacted one like it — in fact, voters across the country have resoundingly rejected all similarly extreme initiatives that have made it to the ballot. In 2011, Mississippi voters voted down a “personhood” amendment , and in 2008 and 2010, Coloradans twice defeated similar measures.
 
Additionally, the so-called personhood effort has been met with opposition within the anti-choice movement. In Mississippi, even the Roman Catholic Church and National Right to Life opposed the ballot measure last year.
 
The Oklahoma Supreme Court has been clear in the past that unconstitutional initiatives should not make it to voters on a ballot. In a 1992 case* blocking a ballot initiative that sought to ban abortion in Oklahoma, the court said “when the unconstitutionality of the initiative petition is manifest, a pre-election judicial determination of the issue is both appropriate and necessary to avoid a costly and useless election.”
 
The Center filed the suit, In re Initiative Petition No. 395, State Question No. 761, with Michelle Movahed as lead counsel, along with Talcott Camp of the ACLU Foundation, Anne Zachritz and Chelsea Smith, Martha Hardwick, Hardwick Law Office, and Ryan Kiesel of ACLU-Oklahoma Foundation.