To Comfort The Afflicted
And Afflict The Comfortable

To Comfort The Afflicted And Afflict The Comfortable

Tuesday, June 25, 2024


The ‘Personhood’ Problem



In saner times the Oklahoma “self-defense” bill [HB 2088] introduced by Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, would seem nothing more than bread and circus hyperbole massage for the conservative masses. But Terrill’s bill bears a disturbing similarity to legislation being offered in other states that, rather than dealing with self-defense, might well be titled the “Open Season on Doctors” bill, allowing self-appointed anti-abortion death squads to carry out summary executions of medical and social workers.

Terrill’s bill appears simple enough, only 19 lines dealing mainly with self-defense if a person is confronted in an armed robbery. The bill establishes a “self-defense” provision if the intended victim should kill their attacker.

But, is that the true intent HB 2088? Certainly no one would disagree with a person’s right to defend themselves in case of an attack. In fact Oklahoma has laws on the books establishing self-defense as a defense against murder charges.

The actual title of the bill is:

An Act relating to crimes and punishments; creating the Jerome Ersland Act; providing presumption of self-defense under certain circumstances; making presumption rebuttable with certain evidence; providing for noncodification; providing for codification; and providing an effective date.

Again, the language sounds simple enough, until you listen to Rep. Terrill. According to Terrill, the bill will be expanded to cover people who kill while defending themselves or others from murder or rape.

Terrill said, “We’re looking at some others that might fall into that category.” He didn’t say which specific “other” crimes might fall under his bill’s umbrella.

However, a perusal of legislation in other states and seemingly unrelated bills pending in Oklahoma paint a deadly picture of vigilantism and the core issue is abortion. In other words killing someone to prevent an abortion would be defensible under HB 2088. This bill is not unique to Terrill or Oklahoma.

On Feb. 9 South Dakota State Rep. Phil Jensen, a Republican and avowed opponent of abortion, introduced HB 1171 to his legislature. The bill provided that it would be justifiable homicide if a person killed someone “while resisting any attempt to murder such person, or to harm the unborn child of such person in a manner and to a degree likely to result in the death of an unborn child …”

Opponents of the bill were quick to rally, pointing out that as worded the bill would allow for the killing of abortion providers. Jensen was supported in his efforts by several far right groups, including several anti-abortion elements – even though it was not supposed to be an abortion bill.

Rep. Jensen attempted to sell the bill as a mere alignment of existing statutes. The sales pitch didn’t work, even in conservative South Dakota, and was shelved.

Following Jensen’s failure, attention turned to Nebraska. State Sen. Mark Christensen, described as a “devout Christian” and foe of abortion for any reason, had a similar bill, LB 232. This bill specifically allowed a third party to protect a fetus with or without the mother’s consent.

Sen. Christensen seemed surprised anyone, including the Omaha deputy police chief, would construe this bill as allowing for the defensible assignation of doctors or other abortion providers. Christensen also claimed to have no knowledge of Jensen’s South Dakota efforts.

By the time all was said and done, Christensen was sent back to the legislative drawing board and his bill has not been heard of since. Not to say it won’t be back in a more restricted form. ACLU lobbyist Alan Peterson told The Observer that should Christenson amend his bill to say the “self-defense” protection encompasses only the mother, the ACLU would have little problem if that were all the bill was intended to cover. Nebraska, like all other states, already has self-defense laws on the books.

Christensen left telling fellow legislators, “I do not believe in killing people for undue reason.” He did not offer a definition of “undue.”

What concerned the Omaha deputy police chief and others during the Judicial Committee hearing on LB232 was the case of Dr. George Tiller. Dr. Tiller was the Wichita, KS doctor gunned by Scott Roeder during a service at the Reformation Lutheran Church on May 31, 2009.

Roeder had stalked Tiller for years, according to testimony. He gunned him down in church and threatened to kill two church members who attempted to apprehend him as he fled.

At trial Roeder claimed he killed the doctor in order to prevent him from conducting any more abortions. Tiller was one of the few doctors in the country that preformed third term abortions.

The jury deliberated slightly over half an hour before finding Roeder guilty of murder and two assault charges on Jan. 29, 2010. He was sentenced to life without parole, and under Kansas law must serve 50 years before being eligible for parole.

Tiller had previously been shot in both arms, on Aug. 19, 1993, by abortion foe Shelly Shannon. She was sentenced to 11 years in a Kansas prison.

In all, since 1993, eight doctors have been murdered by anti-abortion activists. An additional 17 doctors have had attempts made on their lives.

But what do the legislative meanderings in South Dakota and Nebraska have to do with Terrill’s seemingly harmless bill? In order to answer that question, it is necessary to look into Iowa, Texas and current legislation offered in Oklahoma.

The central issue is “Personhood.” Personhood is an anti-abortion movement run by a Washington DC group, Americans United for Life. AUL has provided the template for what it calls the “Pregnant Woman’s Protection Act.”

The “Act,” however, does much more than just “protect” pregnant women. The legislation promoted by AUL, according to opponents, also promotes the use of deadly force by any third party to prevent an abortion. The South Dakota legislation that failed was a part of the AUL template package.

Other states riding the tide of the conservative November win have fallen in line with the AUL effort: South Dakota, North Dakota, Virginia, Texas, Georgia, Montana, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Central to the AUL effort is what has become known is Personhood legislation. This legislation, considered an end run around Roe v. Ward, says, depending on the state:

“The life of an individual human organism begins at the moment that the initial splitting of a human cell occurs during fertilization.” [Neb. 1109].

“Human being” means an individual member of the species homo sapiens at every stage of development. [ND HB 1450].

“Person” means a human being at all stages of human development of life, including the state of fertilization or conception, regardless of age, health, level of functioning, or condition of dependency. [OK HB 1571]

“MOMENT THAT LIFE BEGINS. The life of an individual human organism begins at the moment that the initial splitting of a human cell occurs during fertilization.

RIGHTS OF UNBORN. An unborn human organism is alive and is entitled to the rights, protections, and privileges accorded to any other person in this state.” [TX HB 1109]

Most of the current “Personhood” legislative proposals contain the similar wording. For the most part these bills have met vocal opposition from Planned Parenthood, women’s rights and pro-choice groups. They have not met with vigorous legislative opposition, except in South Dakota and Nebraska, where they allowed for the direct killing of doctors and pro-life counselors.

Key to these bills is the wording enfranchising a fetus with rights and protections of a fully born person. Under these circumstances, according to many pro-life anti-abortion supporters a third party would be entitled to take violent, if not homicidal, action against a person attempting to terminate the life of a fetus.

A third party would not have to “know” the fetus would be harmed, only “believe” a fetus was in danger. There is no wording to suggest at what point this belief becomes actionable.

Given the present wording, Roeder would have been justified in killing the doctor, claiming that because the doctor had done abortions in the past that he was likely to perform them in the future, and therefore he was saving yet unborn or even yet to be conceived children.

Terrill’s HB 2088 is problematic. It’s title says it is a “self-defense act,” providing presumption of self-defense under certain circumstances; and while the actual verbiage deals with armed robbery, there are already laws on the books allowing for a self-defense plea.

The question then arises: what are the “certain circumstances?” Terrill has already said the act is designed for a self-defense claim for persons defending themselves or “others.” Who are the “others?”

Additionally, Terrill has been open about plans to add other “circumstances” to the self-defense litany. With the wording of the Oklahoma Personhood bill it would be easy to include an unborn fetus considering that the state has declared the fetus a “person.”

Terrill has already shown that he is capable of changing bills to fit his needs. One need only look at his bribery charge in the Oklahoma County District Court or the House investigation triggered by his altering of legislation in the waning hours of the last legislative session.

If Terrill were allowed to alter HB 2088 to cover a fetus from conception forward, then anyone perceiving a doctor, counselor or pro-choice worker as a threat to any unborn fetus would be free to assassinate those people with state approval.

These bills create a number of problems not only for the people of Oklahoma, but also for prosecutors, judges and law enforcement in particular. Such questions as:

Can minors now backdate their age, because they have been declared a “person” by nine months in order to vote, buy drinks, get drivers licenses, or marry?

Can prosecutors backdate a juvenile to declare them an adult without benefit of a hearing as now required by law?

If a woman is told in December that she is pregnant, can she claim the tax deduction for that “person” for the entire year?

Does the killing of an abortion provider have to occur in the exam room, or can it be done in a preemptive manner … in a restaurant, at a youth soccer game, a Rotary luncheon or just by going to their home and blowing their brains out?

Terrill’s fellow traveler in his last legislative scheme, the one that got him charged with bribery, Sen. Anthony Sykes, has been pushing tort reform measures. Among the arguments has been that the state needs a cap on damages to keep doctors from leaving the state, which they are not.

But how many doctors would want to move to a state where an anti-abortion zealot can safely put a bullet in their brain without fear of prosecution?

Richard L. Fricker lives in Tulsa, OK and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer, providing both essay and video commentary [see Observer home page]. His latest book, Martian Llama Racing Explained, is available at


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  1. “If a woman is told in December that she is pregnant, can she claim the tax deduction for that “person” for the entire year?”

    And further, can a woman have multiple fertilized eggs (they’re tiny, you could easily get a hundred or more of them little puppies in that space) implanted for just a second and then have them then immediately removed and claim them all for the entire year? Women with fertility problems who want children routinely have more than one fertilized egg implanted and then have the excess removed when one appears to “take” so they don’t end up with an Octomom situation, so how would that work?

  2. It simply amazes me how, as soon as a Republican is elected to an office of any power, they also are embued with certain extra powers. They become experts in the Constitution, in medicine, in climatology, in economy, and above all in lying. There is nothing these fanatics won’t do to get what they want. Most Americans follow the law and go about changing those laws they don’t agree with through the courts. These guys just assume the mantle of expert and decide that they alone when life begins. When medical doctors won’t even say when human life actually begins, these egomaniacle simpleton lawmakers have the conceit to think that they have answers that science doesn’t. Republican/conservative/tea party arrogance knows no bounds. These are people who say they believe in God but assume that they know what God would do. What enormous conceit these fools have. No way they actually believe in God. Not if they think themselves above Him and smarter than Him. They think it’s their place to punish those they think break God’s laws. How much of this effrontery are we going to take before we put these simpletons in their place?

Arnold Hamilton
Arnold Hamilton
Arnold Hamilton became editor of The Observer in September 2006. Previously, he served nearly two decades as the Dallas Morning News’ Oklahoma Bureau chief. He also covered government and politics for the San Jose Mercury News, the Dallas Times Herald, the Tulsa Tribune and the Oklahoma Journal.