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Conventional Thinking: What is ‘Personhood’ again?

You may have heard lawmakers speak about the term on the news. You may even have been asked to sign a petition on the subject. The topic of “Personhood” has arrived in Oklahoma.

Just what is it, and why should you care? To borrow a phrase, “Personhood is the cultural and legal recognition of the equal and unalienable rights of human beings.”

Previous attempts have been made to put the idea into a law in other states, including Missouri, Colorado and Mississippi. In the Oklahoma Legislature, there is a bill now under consideration on the very idea.

Called the Personhood Act, the bill (Senate Bill 1433) affirms that “The life of each human being begins at conception.” It also states that “The laws of this State shall be interpreted and construed to acknowledge on behalf of the unborn child at every stage of development, all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of this State.”

Since Sen. Brian Crain and Rep. Lisa Billy proposed the law, a great deal of misinformation has been circulated about the proposed law. Critics say if the bill passes, fertility treatments and contraception will be outlawed in Oklahoma.

This is simply not the case. SB 1433 is based on the Missouri law (which was reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court and allowed to stand) that has been in place since the late 1980s, and that state has fertility clinics and access to contraception (not to mention abortion still). Further, the bill was amended by a State House Committee to say that nothing in the bill shall be construed to limit contraception or in vitro fertilization.

Currently SB 1433 is waiting to be heard by the House Members. If it is not heard by Thursday, April 26—which is deadline to get Senate bills that are now by the House to and vice versa—the bill is dead. House Speaker Kris Steele and Floor Majority Dale DeWitt are the keys to allowing the bill to be voted upon (for information on how to contact their offices, visit When asked by theBaptist Messenger about the status of the bill, Jon Estus, Press Secretary for the Speaker said, “It’s still being considered like any other bill.”

As I mentioned, the larger conversation about Personhood has come to Oklahoma, and a separate effort to pass laws is in the works. You may have been approached recently to sign an initiative petition on the issue. A group called Personhood Oklahoma is leading an effort to collect 155,000 signatures within 90 days of when they began in February, to put the issue in the form of a constitutional amendment this November.

While experts say the essential elements and heart of the bill and initiative petition are the same, the possibility of passage of each is vastly different. While the people in both camps of the effort are good people with the same end goal, the policy making process operates in the realm of what is possible.

In order to succeed, initiative petitions cost a great deal of money, in terms of publicity and organization. Further, the lessons of Colorado and Mississippi show that the issue of Personhood is easily demonized in the media. It is hard enough to inform legislators of all of the particulars of the bill, let alone tens of thousands of voters. Historically, the pro-choice side has always had more money and media backing than the pro-life cause. In Personhood, there is no reason to believe the case would be any different.

Pro-life Oklahomans, like the ones who attend Rose Day each year, need the best information possible on this issue. Oklahoma Baptists last fall took a stand on this very issue. During the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, in a pro-life resolution, messengers said, “we support legislation that curbs abortion and encourage lawmakers to enact statutes that acknowledge the full personhood of the unborn. We reaffirm our commitment of being a voice for every unborn child, created in all circumstances, by defending their right to live and be recognized as a person.”

While The Messenger has never, nor will it ever, endorse candidates, we do inform citizens on key public policy issues; especially ones on which Oklahoma Baptists have taken a stand like this. With the conversation of Personhood at hand, it is a time for us all to decide where we stand on the issue. With prayerful action, may the Lord receive glory in the life of every person in Oklahoma.

Brian Hobbs

Author: Brian Hobbs

Brian is editor of The Baptist Messenger.

View more articles by Brian Hobbs.

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  • Brian,
    Thanks for the information on Personhood. The prolife conversation is returning to its core and foundational issue – is the unborn child a person or property? Personhood was the beginning of the prolife opposition to Roe v. Wade. Rep. Lawrence Hogan (R – Maryland) introduced a Human Life Amendment on January 30, 1973, just days after the fateful Roe v. Wade decision. The wording of his amendment proposal is almost exactly the same as that proposed by Personhood Oklahoma.

    In the years following Roe, the prolife movement lost its way and became mired in a political process that sought to elect sympathetic politicians in the hopes of influencing appointments to the Supreme Court. Lawyers and politicians seduced well-intentioned activists into thinking that the so-called incremental strategy and political process strategy was more effective than demanding full personhood rights for the unborn. Once the compromise was made, and Christian leaders began promoting abortion regulations and joining forces with politicians, the faithful in the church followed suit, most of them not realizing the grand error of this strategy.

    Almost 40 years later, the prolife movement is beginning to come full circle. The obscene failure of abortion regulations, all of which tacitly approve of the “right to an abortion” by placing weak restrictions and then permitting the abortion to take place has taken its toll on the grassroots prolife community. We are tired of lawyers and politicians telling us that these half-hearted measures are “real progress in the battle against abortion”. The truth is this: Any piece of legislation that ends with “and then you can kill the baby” is a horrifc stain on the conscience of any moral person.

    We are ready to fight the real battle which is affirming the personhood of the unborn. The recognized leadership of many well-known prolife organizations seem reluctant to return to the Human Life Amendment. I can only speculate at their reasons. But the abortion regulation strategy is compromised and actually serves to perpetuate the “right to an abortion”. And while the prolife community is thankful for any elected official who takes a principled stand for the protection of the unborn, we do not endorse a compromise with any political party in the hopes that it will do some good in the long run. Scripture warns us constantly against doing evil in the hopes that good may come of it, or in even the smallest compromise out of good intentions. Such steps only presume that we know something more than God and can manipulate morality to achieve something better. True humility and reverence for God compels us to remain uncompromised and true to the ultimate purpose of prolife activism – ENDING ABORTION and protecting the lives of the unborn.

    Dan Skerbitz
    Personhood Oklahoma

  • Melissa Hinch

    Please go to this website for more information on how the personhood movement expects to affect birth control.

  • Winston

    You need to go back and look at the Webster case (Missouri). The Supreme Court never ruled on the constitutionality of the language of the preamble because it had never been applied. Typical misinformation from typically misinformed people.

  • Brian Hobbs

    Appreciate your comment. Though it is by no means a legal journal, a plain Wikipedia entry says the law was “upheld in the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 492 U.S. 490 (1989) decision by the United States Supreme Court decision on July 3, 1989.”

    You make a distinction without a difference about the preamble, I am afraid. What more needs to be known that the law was upheld?

    Brian Hobbs

    • Winston

      Wikipedia is an open-source forum and easily manipulated. It’s a good place to begin a research project, perhaps, but no one should use it as a definitive reference on any subject.

      Here’s a link to the actual Supreme Court opinion:

      Chief Justice Rehnquist’s statement on the personhood language in the Missouri statute is pretty clear: “We therefore need not pass on the constitutionality of the Act’s preamble.”

      You can find it on page 507 of the opinion. The page numbers are highlighted in blue and appear within the body of the text like this: [p. 507]

      Not that this matters to Personhood USA. Their president consider rulings by the United States Supreme Court in this, the great and venerable Constitutional Democracy that is the United States of America, to be “judicial tyranny.”

      Read it for yourself:


  • Kevin Calvey


    Statutes, like the Missouri law reviewed in Webster and like Senate Bill 1433, are presumed constitutional unless ruled otherwise. The abortion industry asked the Court in Webster to declare the Missouri law unconstitutional. The Court refused to do so. Therefore, on its face, the Missouri law is constitutional. Senate Bill 1433 is identical in every significant way to the Missouri law, so Senate Bill 1433, too, would be constitutional on its face.

    The Webster Court’s statements that you quote in your comment did imply that if that Missouri law were to be applied in a way that was not constitutional, then that application of the law would be thrown out. But even if certain applications of a law might be thrown out, that does not mean that the entire law is unconstitutional.

    A simple way to explain it is that any law can be applied in an unconstitutional way, but few laws on their face are unconstitutional. For example, a law against speeding in a school zone is perfectly constitutional on its face. But if that law is applied only against black drivers, then that application would be unconstitutional, although the underlying speeding law would still be constitutional. However, a law against blacks speeding in a school zone would be unconstitutional on its face, since it could not possibly be applied in a constitutional way.

    The Missouri statute, and Senate Bill 1433, are like the law against speeding in a school zone. On its face Senate Bill 1433 and the Missouri law are constitutional. If such laws were to be applied to prosecute an abortionist for performing an abortion, that application, sadly, would not be constitutional, under unfortunate current Supreme Court jurisprudence such as Roe v. Wade.

    That’s why most advocates for the Personhood Act, Senate Bill 1433, have been saying that while SB 1433 is a very important educational statement for the public, it could not, unfortunately, be applied to ban abortion, etc. Roe v. Wade, unfortunately, would not allow such an application to proceed. Same goes for contraception and in vitro fertilization- no application of any law could be used to prohibit contraception or in vitro fertilization, given Supreme Court cases on such issues. In addition, there is a specific amendment on the Personhood Act that makes it even more clear that it does not prohibit contraception or in vitro fertilization.

    I thank Oklahoma Baptists for their courageous Christian moral witness on this issue and so many others in our society.

    -Kevin Calvey
    Attorney at Law

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