JENKS — Confronted by a rape survivor who criticized his signing of anti-abortion bills that lack exceptions for victims of rape and incest, Gov. Kevin Stitt said he was simply fulfilling a campaign promise to voters but the Legislature could make changes if lawmakers felt the new laws went too far.
While taking audience questions during a chamber event in Jenks on Monday, Stitt called on Jeannie Kirk, who came prepared with a written statement.
“I would like to ask you to explain how you can possibly make a decision so harsh that females that have been raped, a heinous crime forced on a woman without her permission, depositing unwanted sperm into her body, stealing from her her dignity, her self-worth, her identity, leaving her helpless, worthless and scared of her own shadow … (are forced to keep the child),” asked Kirk, who said she was raped in 1994.
“Please explain to me why you have the choice to end someone's life with a beating heart that is sitting on death row, but a woman doesn’t have a right to make a choice for herself that resulted from a crime that was forced upon her.”
Stitt quietly listened as Kirk read off her statement and then told her banning all abortions was what he vowed to do when he first ran for governor four years ago.
“I promised to sign every piece of pro-life legislation that hit my desk and the Legislature sent that to me ... and I signed it,” Stitt told Kirk.
“You read a horrific story, and I’m so sorry for your pain and what has happened. At the same time, I am the governor who said he would sign every piece of pro-life litigation that hit my desk.”
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade this year, Oklahoma lawmakers quickly enacted new restrictions on abortion, including one that bans all abortions except to save the life of a pregnant person. There is no exception for abortions in the case of pregnancies from rape or incest.
Monday’s exchange highlighted the pain some women felt following the ban and was a rare moment when the governor heard that opposition directly.
Most Republicans support rape and incest provisions
Kirk’s question also highlighted the fact that some abortion opponents feel Oklahoma has gone too far.
“I am a Christian and I know a lot of Oklahoma Christians do not feel like this is the right kind of law," Kirk told The Oklahoman after her exchange with Stitt. "I don't feel like abortion should be used as a means of contraception, but I also believe there have to be provisions for people who are victims of a heinous crime.”
A poll in August conducted by Amber Integrated found just 19% of likely Oklahoma Republican voters favored a total abortion ban, while 62% said abortion should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother.
Stitt acknowledged the lack of exceptions for rape and incest but said any changes had to come from the state Legislature.
"There is an exception for the life of the mother ... then there are things that the Legislature, now that this is a state issue, can change that move the needle on that," Stitt told Kirk.
After the event, Kirk said the governor had more power than he let on.
“He could have sent it back and said rewrite this,” Kirk told The Oklahoman.
Will abortion rights become an issue in the governor's race?
Abortion rights have also become a point of division in the current gubernatorial race as Joy Hofmeister, Stitt’s Democratic challenger, has criticized the governor for signing "an extreme abortion ban without any mercy for victims of rape or incest.”
"Maybe the governor hasn’t sat with Oklahoma women in living rooms across the state, but I have,” Hofmeister told The Oklahoman in a statement. “Women are angry at what Kevin Stitt has done — he’s taken away agency over our own bodies and removed the freedom to make health care decisions with a trusted doctor.”
Polls have shown a gender divide in the race, with Hofmeister leading among likely women voters, according to a September survey from SoonerPoll.
After signing multiple abortion bans this year, Stitt said the state needed to turn its attention to caring for expecting and new mothers.
"From the moment life begins at conception is when we have a responsibility as human beings to do everything we can to protect that baby’s life and the life of the mother," Stitt said after signing an anti-abortion bill this year.
He recently endorsed a proposal to expand the state's Medicaid program for pregnant women.
Oklahoma state government reporting is supported in part by a grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation. The Oklahoman retains editorial control. To support work like this, consider purchasing a digital subscription to the Oklahoman today.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Stitt tells rape survivor Oklahoma ban on abortion can be changed