In order to get an abortion in Oklahoma, women first have to undergo mandatory counseling that is designed to discourage them from terminating the pregnancy. The basis of this counseling comes from a state-directed website that presents medically-inaccurate and misleading claims about the procedure as though they were neutral, credible information. (Legal precedent allows states to promote medical inaccuracies in mandatory counseling as long as they are based on some kind of evidence, even if that evidence is scientifically contested or contradicts medical consensus.)
Last week, a committee in the Oklahoma House of Representatives advanced a bill that would bring these kinds of anti-abortion talking points into public school classrooms across the state.
According to the language of the proposal, the Humanity of the Unborn Child Act, every public school in the state would be required “to provide a unit of instruction over the topic [of the humanity of the unborn child.]”
But the push to bring anti-abortion curriculum into Oklahoma schools creates an odd kind of tension: there is no state law requiring that high school students receive sex education, but this measure, at least as written, would mandate biased teaching on abortion.
Which means that, as a student in Oklahoma, there’s no guarantee you’ll learn about sex and pregnancy, but you may very well be taught that, at least as defined by Oklahoma law, "abortion shall terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being."
“I am flabbergasted by that,” state Rep. Emily Virgin, a Democrat from Norman, said of teaching anti-abortion ideology in a classroom setting while also censoring the basics on reproduction. “Endorsing one view without giving any time to the opposing view is not something that I think we should be doing on any subject in school. And kids are curious. They will say, ‘How did that fetus get there?’ Will the person teaching that class be able to answer that question?"
Virgin told me she has introduced legislation to allow comprehensive sex education in Oklahoma schools, but every year the bill fails to make it out of committee: "If the intent [of the Humanity of the Unborn Child Act] is truly to educate children and prevent abortion, then we know how to do that. Comprehensive sex ed and access to contraception reduce unwanted pregnancy."
The Oklahoma Department of Education does not keep track of which school districts offer sex education, but a 2014 investigation by an organization called Oklahoma Watch found that it varied widely across the state. For example, the Oklahoma City Public School district, the largest in the state, provides no sex education classes to students. According to a 2015 ranking, Oklahoma is third in the nation when it comes to teen births.
The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Ann Coody, a Republican from Lawton, did not return my calls or emails, but I did ask Tony Lauinger, the president of Oklahomans for Life who also presented on the bill during the committee hearing, about what might happen if students had questions about sex during an anti-abortion lesson.
“We do not envision that would be part of the curriculum,” he said of basic sex education. “Oklahomans for Life is a pro-life organization, and our focus is the protection of a human life once that human life exists. Sex education and other topics are not within our purview, nor are they within the curriculum of this educational course as we envision it.”
When I asked him what he did envision for the curriculum, he pointed me to the state-mandated counseling website called “A Woman’s Right.” Here's what that site looks like:
In addition to defining abortion as the termination of "the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being," the page creates the false impression that there is no medical consensus on things like fetal pain or the oft-repeated but medically-discredited claim that abortion increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
On that point, A Woman's Right offers:
Studies on this issue have reached differing conclusions. Some studies indicate that there is no increased risk of breast cancer after a woman has had an abortion. Other studies indicate that there might be an increased risk.
This language of equivalence—some studies say yes, some studies say no—is directly contradicted by medical consensus. When researchers at Oxford University reviewed 53 separate studies from 16 different countries, they concluded that the “totality of worldwide epidemiological evidence” indicates that there is no increased risk. The National Cancer Institute offers the same conclusion: "Induced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk."
Neither conclusion is cited on A Woman’s Right.
But when it comes to the state-directed counseling, and any curriculum it may inspire, bias is a feature, not a bug. And that’s not even a particularly controversial point: “The bill is intended not to present abortion and childbirth on equal terms,” Lauinger told me. “The bill is intended to encourage childbirth and discourage abortion.”
It’s an objective that the state of Oklahoma has gotten increasingly bold about in recent years. Starting around 2011, states began pushing a slew of new abortion laws intended to restrict access through coercive counseling, logistical delays, and a sea of red tape.
Oklahoma has been on the vanguard of that trend. There are just two clinics left in the state, and the Republican-controlled legislature has passed laws requiring women to receive mandatory counseling and wait 72-hours before undergoing the procedure. And there are additional laws banning abortion after 20 weeks and the use of telemedicine, a process that allows women who don't live near an abortion provider to access medication abortion at a local clinic. Lawmakers have also restricted insurance coverage for abortion except in cases of life endangerment. Right along with states like Texas and Mississippi, Oklahoma is considered among the most hostile in the country when it comes to abortion.
The proposal to bring the state's anti-abortion stance into classrooms may be in keeping with Oklahoma's record on the issue, but it's still new territory. In order to introduce anti-abortion coursework into public schools, lawmakers like Coody appear willing, at least tacitly, to do something that remains controversial in Oklahoma public schools: acknowledge the existence of sex.
But the bill's fate remains uncertain. Oklahoma is in the midst of a serious budget crisis and doesn't have the money to support the curriculum, which may result in the bill stalling in the legislature. But if it gets a vote on the House floor, Virgin told me, history predicts it will pass. "Unfortunately, anything in Oklahoma that deals with restricting abortion is probably going to pass," she said. "I think people are afraid to have any type of nuanced conversation on the topic."
And if the bill passes, that lack of nuance, and a barrage of medical inaccuracies, may be heading to the classroom.