POSTED ON MAY 2, 2007:
Posturing politicians find yet another way to keep taxpayers paying for the public's abortions
After weeks of public debate via dueling press conferences and letters-to-the-editor, the fate of Tulsa Republican state Sen. James Williamson's Senate Bill 714 came down to, not the decision of Gov. Brad Henry, but of Shawnee Democratic Sen. Charlie Laster.
The measure would have prohibited state funds or facilities from being used to perform an abortion, as well as prevented physicians making use of such from "encouraging" a patient to get an abortion.
It's been the subject of heated debate between lawmakers--many of whom come from Tulsa and other parts of northeastern Oklahoma, as well as between members of the medical community.
After the bill passed the House 73-22 on April 3 and the Senate 32-16 about a week later, Tahlequah's Sen. Jim Wilson called the measure "outrageous" when he held a press conference in early April to urge the Governor to veto it.
With a handful of other Democratic lawmakers in tow, as well as representatives of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, Oklahoma Nurses Association, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Oklahoma Osteopathic Association, he said, "The horrifying truth is this bill could result in the premature deaths of mothers and babies after delivery; it prohibits a pregnant woman with cancer from deciding with her own doctor to receive life-saving treatment if such treatment would require termination of the pregnancy."
By forbidding the use of state funds for the procedure, Wilson said the bill would have done nothing to reduce the number of abortions in Oklahoma apart from denying middle class and poor women the same medical options enjoyed by women in the upper economic class.
"While most Oklahomans are opposed to abortion, most believe that not all medical procedures resulting in termination of pregnancy should be prohibited because of a person's financial situation," he said.
"It also makes no exceptions for rape or incest, and it is so egregious that an ER won't be able to give rape or incest victims emergency contraception to keep them from becoming pregnant as a result of the assault," the Tahlequah Democrat also said.
Within a week of Wilson's joust, Williamson and the bill's House author, Broken Arrow Republican Rep. John Wright, rallied some medical professionals of their own and launched a counter-attack.
Wright held a press conference in Tulsa at the St. John Medical Center the same day Williamson held one at the state Capitol, each with representatives of the medical community in tow to offer their endorsements.
Wright said the bill's intent was to bring state policy in line with the original wording of the Hippocratic Oath, which, in some of its many ancient incarnations, contained terms preventing physicians from performing abortions.
"The main thrust of this bill is to get the taxpayer out of the abortion business," said Wright.
Dr. Bob Aikman, an obstetrician/gynecologist who said he has performed about 6,000 abortions and delivered 20,000 babies through the course of his career, spoke in favor of the bill.
He countered statements made in opposition by Dr. Jack Beller, chair of OSMA's Council on State Legislation, which Wilson referenced in his statements.
"I'm disturbed that much of what you've heard from the OSMA chair hasn't been filtered through membership," said Aikman.
About Wilson's comment that denying abortions would lead to the premature deaths of women and children, Aikman said, "In 41 years, I have never seen that happen--I've never heard of it happening. It's extremely, extremely rare."
Wright said the bill wouldn't do anything to prohibit abortions by private physicians, who, he said, provide the "vast majority of care" in Oklahoma.
Also, Wright pointed out that, contrary to statements by the opposition, the bill contained no language forbidding emergency contraception. In fact, he explained that the measure contains language fine-tuning the legal definition of "abortion" for the specific purpose of excluding birth control options like the "morning after" pill from the prohibition.
Wright also said it would not prohibit physicians in state-funded or state-run facilities from apprising a woman of abortion as an option to pursue elsewhere--only from "encouraging" her to choose abortion as an option.
"There is a line between 'encouraging' and 'discussing options,'" he said.
Sound and Fury
Rep. Lisa Joe Billy, R-Purcell, spoke about her own experience with that "line" at Williamson's press gathering.
She explained that a physician at a state-funded hospital in Oklahoma City had advised her to have an abortion when she was 22-weeks pregnant because her son had the "potential" to have Down Syndrome, which she refused.
"He tried to make me feel like some uneducated hick because I didn't want to kill my child--it was a horrible experience," said Billy.
After carrying her son Nahinli to term and giving birth, it turned out that he didn't have Down Syndrome, or any other health problems, after all.
"I was pressured to abort my child on little more than a doctor's whim. Nahinli is living proof that medical officials can be wrong--dramatically and irrevocably wrong," said Billy. "To provide those officials with state funding to perform abortions means more women could face the same terrible situation I did and healthy babies may be killed because some doctor wants to play God at taxpayer expense."
Even for those women whose babies have fatal birth defects, carrying them to term and delivering them and spending a few days, hours or minutes with them before they pass can have a "healing effect" on the parents, according to some of the doctors who endorsed SB 714.
"As someone who delivers babies, I take exception to the assumption that aborting a baby rather than carrying the child to natural outcome is somehow 'kinder' or 'less traumatic' to the parents," said Dr. Mary Martin, an obstetrician/gynecologist from Midwest City.
"All babies have a vocation, even those whose lives are shortened by lethal anomalies, accidents or maternal diseases. I can attest that every parent who gives birth to such a child finds comfort in recognizing common familial features such as ears or feet or noses. Terminating the pregnancy before its natural outcome not only robs the family of this healing experience, but makes them complicit in the death of their child," she explained.
In the flurry of news segments, articles and letters-to-the-editor that ensued, though, some women spoke up about having had the opposite experience, and wishing they'd been advised to have an abortion rather than go through the pain of watching their children's suffering before they died.
The debate continued among lawmakers within the Capitol and in a more public arena.
Senate Co-President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, called Tulsa's Sen. Nancy Riley a "pro-death legislator who should be removed from office" because of her opposition to the bill, provoking an ardent letter-to-the-editor from Riley, which ran in some publications.
Riley was elected in 2000 and re-elected in 2004 as a Republican to represent Tulsa's Senate District 37, but became a Democrat following her unsuccessful bid for the state's lieutenant governor seat last year.
As a result, she's been the target of no small amount of GOP venom, especially now that the state Senate is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans following last year's elections, with her switch costing Republicans control.
"The Nancy Riley originally elected to the Senate consistently voted pro-life in all cases. The new Nancy Riley now appears less committed to pro-life principles. This change coincides with her change of political parties," said Tulsa's Sen. Mike Mazzei in a joint statement with fellow Republican Sen. Kathleen Wilcoxson of Oklahoma City.
"It is well known I have a strong pro-life voting record in the Oklahoma State Senate. But I did vote against (SB 714)," Riley wrote in response to Mazzei and Coffee's criticisms.
"It was not a pro-life bill, it was an anti-woman bill that should offend every woman in Oklahoma. First, let me explain that those supporting the bill admitted it nothing to prevent abortion. So how can it be considered pro-life? (It) aimed solely at poor women who depend on state services for medical care," she explained.
Wilson, Riley and the other opponents of the bill eventually won out when Henry vetoed it.
"I have vetoed SB 714 because I believe it ultimately does more harm than good," the Governor said in a statement.
"I do not issue this veto lightly. I believe every abortion is a tragedy, and I have a strong record of support for commonsense, reasonable restrictions on abortion. Although I have no doubt SB 714 is well-intentioned, I have grave concerns that its inadvertent consequences would prove disastrous," he said.
Those "disastrous consequences," Henry explained, were that the measure did not make exceptions for victims of rape or incest, would have made "undue restrictions on the sacred relationship between doctor and patient," and would have "compromise(ed) the quality and availability of medical care" in the state by "disproportionately impacting healthcare options for low-income women and families."
"This is an emotional, highly charged issue. Sadly, some people will distort and mischaracterize this veto for political ends, but I believe the unintended consequences of this bill would do more harm than good," he concluded.
Whether he "distorted and mischaracterized" the veto is for his constituents to judge, but Williamson's response maintained the "emotional, highly charged"-quality of the debate as he vowed to see Henry's decision overturned.
"On the same day the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on partial-birth abortions, (Henry) took the opposite track," said the Tulsa lawmaker.
"I am stunned and shocked by Governor Brad Henry's veto of this bipartisan legislation. Now that he has been re-elected, we're starting to see the real Brad Henry--and we're seeing that he is neither a moderate nor is he bipartisan," Williamson continued.
To override the veto, Williamson needed 32 votes in the Senate and 68 in the House. Since it originally passed the Senate 32-16 and the House 73-22, he was confident it would happen.
Oklahoma politics are sometimes like its weather, though, and the override fell short by a single vote last week when Sen. Charlie Laster changed his mind.
"I initially voted in favor of SB 714. However, in the days since that vote I have visited with Governor Henry and multiple medical professionals," said the Democrat from Shawnee.
"I am pro-life and I have consistently voted for pro-life legislation. This bill, however, holds poorer Oklahomans to a different standard than everyone else and I can't support that," Laster said, also citing other arguments previously advanced by the bill's opposition.
Along with making the expected comments about Laster's "waffling," Williamson vowed to keep at it.
"Today's vote was just the beginning. Our fight on behalf of unborn Oklahomans will continue for as long as necessary until we override this veto," he said.
Several members of Tulsa's legislative delegation signed on as co-authors of SB 714: Republican Sens. Mazzei, Brian Bingman, Bill Brown and Randy Brogdon and Republican Reps. David Derby, Pam Peterson and Daniel Sullivan.
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