Commentary: Handmaid’s senator 

U.S. Sen. James Lankford’s fixation on anti-choice legislation goes against the majority of U.S. citizens.

INGVARD ASHBY
  • Ingvard Ashby

Next week, Hulu’s acclaimed adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale begins its third season on the streaming service. A dystopian nightmare in which fundamentalists seize control of the United States in a violent coup, reduce newly rechristened Gilead’s population of women to forced procreation vessels and banish heretics and the infertile to work in the toxic “colonies,” The Handmaid’s Tale has achieved newfound salience as state legislatures in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio and Mississippi pass laws to constrict abortion rights.

These bills that are passing in conservative-dominated legislatures are in direct conflict with majority opinion on the status of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal. In a May 21 CBS News poll, 67 percent of Americans favored maintaining abortion rights as set forth in Roe, yet these state legislatures are siding with the 28 percent who want to make abortion illegal and off limits. Even a plurality of Republicans polled — 48 percent — favor keeping abortion available, albeit with greater limitations.

The Handmaid’s Tale, both the 1985 novel and its adaptations, depict a scenario in which a minority of ultraconservative he-man woman-haters prevail over a majority that preferred the old land of the free over the newly enforced theocratic rule by misogynistic zealots. Bills like the one signed this month by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey feel like prologue to the Gilead revolution.

The new laws’ main purpose is to tee up litigation that anti-choice forces hope will result in the Supreme Court revisiting Roe, but while these state laws are currently receiving the most public scrutiny, U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, has quietly sponsored or co-sponsored 11 pieces of anti-choice legislation since the beginning of 2019.

I say “quietly” because Lankford issues surprisingly few public statements on his anti-choice legislation. Since Jan. 1, Lankford’s office has issued six press releases on various aspects of his anti-choice agenda out of his total of over 105 press releases during that period. It is clearly an important agenda item for the senator, whose post-collegiate work experience prior to his congressional election during the Tea Party massacre of 2010 mainly consisted of overseeing student evangelism programs for Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and serving as director of youth programming for Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center in Davis.

Lankford began his 2019 anti-choice campaign on Jan. 9, issuing a statement in support of a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) change to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that would prohibit issuers of ACA-related insurance policies from paying for abortions with the surcharges. In January 2019 alone, Lankford sponsored or cosponsored bills seeking to prohibit family planning grants from being issued to organizations that perform abortions, prohibit minors from being transported across state lines without parental consent for abortions, enforce doctors’ requirements to perform life-saving measures in the event that a fetus survives an abortion procedure, prohibit discrimination against clinics that refuse to perform abortions, deny federal funding to nongovernmental organizations (NGO) that promote or perform abortions in other countries, prohibit so-called dismemberment abortions and other related legislation.

His most recent anti-choice bill was essentially a bribe: a bill to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide a child tax credit for pregnant mothers. In other words, get pregnant and stay pregnant to get a sweet deduction on your Form 1040.

These legislative actions are not surprising given Lankford’s voting record, which earned him a 91 out of 100 rating from The American Conservative Union (ACU), the organization that stages the annual worst-case scenario for American leadership, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). But it is the fervency with which Lankford chips away at protections under Roe that makes him such a clear and present threat to women’s reproductive rights.

Much of the anti-choice legislation Lankford sponsors or cosponsors is the lawmaking equivalent of nuisance litigation. Take, for instance, Senate Bill 311, the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” which requires doctors present at the time of an abortion procedure to “exercise the same degree of professional skill, care, and diligence to preserve the life and health” of a child born during said abortion.

Infanticide is already illegal. When conservatives decry pieces of legislation because they are unnecessary due to existing laws (see continuing arguments against gun control), that standard clearly does not apply to bills designed to score points with Matt Schlapp of the ACU and his acolytes. Since Oklahoma had no reports of infants born alive due to abortion procedures in 2016, the last year such statistics were reported by the state of Oklahoma, SB311 is the legislative equivalent of those horrific billboards of fetuses that anti-choice groups buy on Interstate 75 in Florida so kids can have waking nightmares on their way to see Mickey Mouse and Moana.

To his credit, Lankford is occasionally on the right side of history, recently finding common cause with Democrats like U.S. senators Gary Peters (D-Michigan), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) on fraud prevention and cybersecurity for voting systems. But it is when he votes like the junior senator from the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma that Lankford’s work is most odious and dangerous to the rights of women.

click to enlarge NAZARENE HARRIS
  • Nazarene Harris

Of course, Lankford’s conservative bona fides go well beyond subjugation of women and elimination of reproductive rights, and many columns can and probably will be written on the senator’s indefensible record on LGBTQ+ rights and unabashed love for the AR-15. It has become a regular talking point among progressives that ultra-conservative lawmakers see The Handmaid’s Tale as a how-to book for the oppression of marginalized groups, and Lankford’s record indicates his copy of the book is dog-eared and rife with highlighted “blessed be the fruit” dialogue. Despite the efforts of his fellow Trumpists, The Handmaid’s Tale is still fiction, but in Lankford’s mind, he is already Commander Lankford, R-Gilead.

George Lang is editor-in-chief of Oklahoma Gazette and began his career at Gazette in 1994.

Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.

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