Cases to Watch: Personhood Oklahoma v. Barber
The last time the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case questioning Roe v. Wade, the seminal, precedent setting case dealing with the issue of abortion, was in 2007 in Gonzales v. Carhart. The Court has been asked in the five years since the Gonzales decision to hear cases meant to redefine reproductive rights across the country, but the Court has not yet granted any of these petitions. Well, another case asking the Court to restrict access to abortion services has been filed and the Court will most likely discuss Personhood Oklahoma v. Barber, et al., at a weekly conference this fall when they return from break.
Last March, supporters of “personhood,” the concept of granting to a fetus the same legal status as a human outside the womb, submitted a ballot measure to state officials in Oklahoma. Measures similar to Question 761 have been placed on ballots across the country and one has already failed in Mississippi. In Oklahoma, Question 761 would alter the state Constitution to redefine a “person” as “any human being from the beginning of the biological development of that human being to natural death.”
Among those standing up for the reproductive rights of women in Oklahoma are the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, who are representing doctors and medical professionals in this case. Beyond restricting access to abortion services, Question 761 also has the possibility of limiting access to in vitro fertilization and most forms of birth control, all of which are legal medical procedures. In April, the Oklahoma State Court found favorably for the challengers of Question 761 who argued that the measure would effectively ban abortion in the state, a clear violation of Roe v. Wade.
The petition for certiorari filed by Personhood Oklahoma asks the Court to consider three constitutional questions: the right of citizens to amend the state Constitution, the right to put a ballot measure up to a vote, and whether the Oklahoma State Supreme Court was incorrect to (unanimously) hold that a state constitution cannot define a “person” to include a fetus. Defining the beginning of life has been the crux of the abortion debate for decades.
States are increasingly passing unconstitutional legislation and ballot measures that restrict the reproductive freedoms of women. The Reform Movement remains committed to guaranteeing women the ability make their own reproductive decisions and we will carefully watch this case when the Court returns from break. Should the Justices decide to grant cert, they could be opening the door to among the most significant redefinitions of reproductive rights since Roe.