OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Legislation that would mandate Oklahoma's public schools to teach that life begins at conception may fail not because of its controversial nature but because the suddenly financially strapped state could have trouble paying for the course materials.
The National Right to Life Committee backs the Oklahoma bill and calls it the first of its kind in the nation. Under it, public high schools would be required to provide the information "for the purpose of achieving an abortion-free society." Parents would be able to pull their children from the classes, and none of the state funding could be used for abortion counseling or sex education.
Opponents, including Democrats, have questioned whether it is appropriate to confront high school students in grades 9-12 with such a politically divisive issue. "My caucus wants to do all we can to reduce the number of abortions in Oklahoma," said House Democratic Leader Scott Inman of Oklahoma City, who voted against the measure.
Though House members passed the bill 64-12 on March 1 and the Senate has yet to take it up, its future could be determined more by how the program would fit within Oklahoma's budget, which is expected to have a $1.3 billion hole in the next fiscal year. A fiscal impact statement prepared by the state Department of Education estimates it would cost up to $160,000 to develop materials for the program and that implementing it at each school district would cost about $10,000 per high school, or $4.78 million total.
The bill's Senate GOP sponsor says it will require several changes. "The goal is to alleviate any fiscal impacts to our school districts," said Sen. A.J. Griffin, R-Guthrie.
The Humanity of the Unborn Child Act would require the state Department of Education to start a program for high schoolers "about the humanity of a child in utero," including details about how a fetus develops at various stages of a pregnancy.
In medical terms, pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg implants itself on the uterine wall. But many people believe a new life starts at conception; the Green family of Oklahoma City, owners of the national Hobby Lobby chain of retail craft stores, made that a central point in its challenge to a portion of the federal health care law that requires coverage for birth-control methods that work after fertilization.
Citing religious grounds, the Greens objected to providing certain forms of emergency contraception to employees, saying they were tantamount to abortion. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that closely held corporations can hold religious views and that the company did not have to comply with that section of the law.
The program could be part of a biology or consumer science education teacher class and help prevent abortions later in a woman's life, according to Tony Lauinger, executive vice president of the NRLC and chairman of Oklahomans for Life.
"It's vitally important to help people understand before such time that a girl might become pregnant that this is a living human being growing within her. That new human life deserves respect and protection," Lauinger said.
But some lawmakers believe the legislation focuses too narrowly on abortion while ignoring sexuality and how to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
"You're starting a book at the end," said Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, who voted against the measure. "A student in Oklahoma would learn about abortion and gestational cycles, but there would be no guarantee that they would learn about sex and pregnancy."
Democratic Rep. Emily Virgin of Norman, who also opposed the bill, said most parents would prefer to have personal conversations about sex and pregnancy with their children rather than defer to public school teachers.
"Adding yet another mandate on them and forcing them to have those very emotional and political conversations with young people just takes away instructional time from other areas," Virgin said.
House Bill 2797: http://bit.ly/21e4wgw