One of the most enduring and favorite American musicals is Oklahoma!, first performed in 1943 (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oklahoma!). It was turned into a wonderful 1955 film starring, among others, Shirley Jones, Gordon MacRae, and Rod Steiger (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oklahoma!#1955_film_adaptation). In 1943, a timeframe when women were being empowered in the war effort and went to work, the plot was rather shocking, as the main character, Laurey, is the victim of a predatory male who wishes to sexually assault her. In the nick of time, she is rescued from the sexual assault. The Rogers and Hammerstein score is superb, and anyone who has seen one of many stage productions or the film, knows the many popular songs, including how to spell Oklahoma: O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A! Let’s not forget “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” and “Surrey with a Fringe On Top”. Even people who hate musicals love this one: There is no bad number in the production. So there’s no doubt that there is a warm, fuzzy feeling when Americans think of the state of Oklahoma.
It’s important to note that the musical, Oklahoma! was particularly popular because it resonated with female audiences who were often targets of sexual predatory behaviors. The play and film delivered moral rescue from a desperate situation, which culminated in “Poor Jud is Dead” (officially spelled “Poor Jud is Daid” – to maximize the accent). Although the villain, Jud, got what was coming to him, there was also audience empathy for him. He was lonely; he had an unrequited, burning attraction to Laurey, and didn’t know how to curtail it.
Unfortunately all our warm, fuzzy feelings about the State of Oklahoma were ruined this month, as news of an ethically egregious proposed House Bill 1441 — a proposed abortion law with a “fringe on top” — was reported to have advanced in the Oklahoma State Legislature. This Bill upends the woman-friendly plot of the musical, Oklahoma!
House Bill 1441 will require a pregnant woman in Oklahoma to seek written consent and permission of the father to approve any abortion; she would need to name the father, and if the father contested, he could opt for a paternity test.
The requirement to name the father is, of course, fraught with psychosocial risks and harms – including to the father, who may be married to someone else. What if it’s a highly secretive (yet consensual) affair?
In many states, including mine (Kentucky), we don’t legally recognize the rights of “baby daddies” who are not legally married to the patient. We don’t recognize them as legal surrogates, nor do we allow them to be surrogates for neonatal patients. At many hospitals, paternity tests are not routinely offered, either. Thus, access to a paternity test could be a problem for a father who feels wrongly named; and finding access could be an additional undue burden.
Bill 1441 does provide an exemption in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s health is at stake. This is still problematic as there can be different interpretations of what constitutes “rape”; it’s unclear whose perception of rape would be accepted should this Bill ever become law, as perpetrators could argue it was all perfectly consensual and the woman was just a “girl who can’t say No”. What about cases of domestic violence rape? In such cases, “people will say they’re in love”. But in reality, violence may increase or be triggered by an unintended pregnancy.
This proposed law is unconstitutional, which even its author, Representative Justin Humphrey, concedes. It is also unethical, misogynistic, and logistically impossible. The Bill’s author also stated that prevention of pregnancy is the “responsibility of the woman”. That may be difficult in States where contraception is not taught or accessible. Oklahoma, in fact, has a terrible record with respect to teaching about contraception and making it accessible (see: https://sexetc.org/states/oklahoma_).
It is self-evident that a woman has the right to make decisions about her body; she is not simply a “host” for the fetus, as the Bill’s sponsor states. She is an American citizen with civil rights; as a legal person, her rights “trump” an unborn, potential person with no legal status. A 1992 Pennsylvania law with similar overtones was struck down by the Supreme Court for these reasons. A pregnant patient and her fetus are a single biological entity pre-viability in which the practitioner’s ethical obligations are owed to the mother unless she presents her fetus as a patient. There is virtually no court that would hold that a capacitated pregnant woman does not have the constitutional right to make medical decisions for herself. From a bioethics perspective this proposed law completely violates the Principle of Autonomy and Respect for Persons.
As another song from Oklahoma! goes: “It’s a Scandal and an Outrage!”