Meet Joseph Silk: The Oklahoma Republican Trying to Make Abortion a Homicide

Joseph Silk is among a growing number of anti-choice activists holding or running for office who have called for the right to legal abortion to be ignored.

[Photo: Republican state Sen. Joseph Silk.]
When it comes to his latest effort to criminalize abortion, Silk said: “I’m going to keep introducing it every year.” Joseph Silk/YouTube

Oklahoma Republican state Sen. Joseph Silk says he wants to abolish abortion—and he won’t give up on bills to make that happen.

Silk pre-filed SB 13, the “Abolition of Abortion in Oklahoma Act,” in late November, prompting national headlines about the extreme bill. The legislation would criminalize abortion care in Oklahoma, making it a felony homicide punishable by life imprisonment. As Rewire.News’ Brie Shea reported, should the bill become law, “all parties involved in an abortion (physicians, nurses, the pregnant person, etc.) could potentially face murder charges.”

The bill isn’t Silk’s first attempt to pass such legislation. Silk introduced the “Oklahoma Bill Prohibiting Abortion After Conception” in 2017 but it wasn’t taken up for a vote. And the year prior, he introduced SB 1118, to define abortion as murder and criminalize it. State Republican leaders blocked the bill from proceeding that time as well, though it passed out of committee.

That 2016 bill was considered by extreme anti-choice group Abolish Human Abortion to be “the first abolitionist bill (of abortion) in the history of the United States.” The group is a part of a subset of anti-choice activists who seek the immediate and total abolishment of abortion rather than steadily chipping away at abortion rights. They call themselves “abolitionists” and liken their work to anti-slavery efforts.

“I’m an abolitionist,” Silk told Rewire.News. “I believe that the government has a primary role to protect life, especially innocent life.” Silk, too, compared the position to those who fought against slavery in the United States. It is “similar to slavery—there were groups that were abolitionists,” he said. “There were people that wanted to kind of regulate slavery and allow people to kind of earn their freedom, and then there’s abolitionists that know slavery is morally wrong and all people are created equal and we need to abolish slavery.’”

He hasn’t always viewed abortion this way. “I used to, when I was first elected, I would kind of run the typical pro-life measures that don’t really actually do anything—such as you can’t commit an abortion until you’ve watched an ultrasound first or hear a heartbeat first,” he said. But then, Silk said, he had a “paradigm shift” in his views after meeting with other “abolitionists” and having a “conversation of how pro-life groups and pro-life bills have really not done anything at all to curb abortion.”

“I only run abolition bills now,” he said.

Silk is one of a growing number of anti-choice activists holding or running for office who have called for the right to legal abortion to be ignored. Among them are Dan Fisher, who launched an unsuccessful bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Oklahoma during the last election cycle. Fisher, a former Oklahoma state representative, ran on a platform that centered on “abolishing” abortion. When questioned about the punishments Fisher would propose for those who have or provide an abortion, a spokesperson for his campaign told Rewire.News it would be treated “much like your homicide laws.”

Silk supported Fisher’s run for office and extreme platform, introducing Fisher in March 2018 as part of a two-day campaign rally. As Right Wing Watch reported, Silk used the appearance to call those who opposed his anti-choice legislation the “enemy.”

“If you use your position of authority to protect the continuation of the slaughter of unborn children, you will always be my enemy,” he said. “And if you use your position of authority, I don’t care what level it’s at, but if you use your position of authority to keep the abortion mills running and protected, what is that other than a very, very evil act and abuse of authority?”

Also speaking at the rally, according to Right Wing Watch, was Matt Trewhella—an anti-choice radical who once signed a pledge suggesting that killing an abortion provider was “justifiable”—and Operation Save America’s Rusty Thomas. Trewhella has promoted Silk’s most recent anti-choice bill on his personal Facebook page, and has written about traveling to Oklahoma to promote his agenda in the state legislature.

The anti-choice activist traveled to Oklahoma in February of that year to “to conduct a citizen’s initiative calling for immediate interposition for the pre-born and total abolition of abortion,” according to a 2016 newsletter produced by one of Trewhella’s organizations, Missionaries to the Preborn. The newsletter notes that almost immediately after, Silk first moved on his legislation to criminalize abortion: “Just 72 hours lateran Oklahoma senator introduced the citizen intitiative [sic] in bill form,” it said.

Silk says Trewhella’s visit to the state in 2016 was not what motivated him to first introduce the bill. “However, I would say it was encouraging to see somebody very adamant and passionate about the abolitionist movement as well,” he said. “And so, he didn’t have anything necessarily to do … [with me] becoming an abolitionist, but he’s definitely been supportive of all that language which is very, very good to see.”

When it comes to his latest effort to criminalize abortion, Silk said: “I’m going to keep introducing it every year.”

In an interview with Oklahoma News 4, Silk appeared unconcerned that women could be punished for abortions under his legislation. When asked what he would say to a woman sentenced to life in prison for an abortion, the Republican replied: “I don’t know. The exact same thing I would say to a mother who just killed a 1-month-old or a 1-year-old child.”

“It’s a horrific act and there shouldn’t be any tolerance for it,” he said, referring to abortion. His legislation makes no exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.

Silk has suggested that the legislation isn’t designed to challenge the landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade, as it would instead instruct the state to ignore federal law on abortion. “The attorney general shall direct state agencies to enforce those laws regardless of any contrary or conflicting federal statutes, regulations, executive orders, or court decisions,” the legislation says. Silk told Rewire.News that “the goal of it is to essentially use state sovereignty to say … Roe v. Wade was constitutionally illegitimate, and it was immoral. So we as a sovereign state are not going to participate in the act of abortion.”

However, he sees a potential avenue for his bill to help undo abortion rights in federal courts. “I would love to see a bill be challenged all the way up to the Supreme Court and then the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade or just say its a state issue. I would actively support those measures,” he said. “I’m looking at some things we can do to maybe get there.”

“I think, depending on what happens with Senate Bill 13 through the committee process, and there’s amendments and stuff like that, it may become a vehicle that would end up going up to the federal courts.”

Silk said in 2016 that his legislation could be used to tee up a challenge to abortion rights at the U.S. Supreme Court. “We need to attack the issue directly,” he told conservative conspiracy website WorldNetDaily. “Life begins at conception, and abortion is murder,” he said. “Until we start doing that, [the Supreme Court is] never going to be forced to overturn that ruling.”

Silk has introduced or co-sponsored several other anti-choice bills. Those include a failed measure he introduced in 2017 to require death certificates be issued to all aborted fetuses in Oklahoma and a failed effort to amend Oklahoma’s Heartbeat Informed Consent Act to force providers to determine if there is the presence of a fetal heartbeat before performing an abortion. In that case, if a fetal heartbeat was detected, the bill would have required the provider to tell the pregnant person that an “unborn human individual” has a heartbeat and inform them of the statistical probability of bringing the “unborn human individual” to term.

He expanded on his views on reproductive rights while speaking with Rewire.News, explaining that he “absolutely” supports banning some forms of birth control—something that could happen should his belief that “life begins at fertilization” be enshrined in law. “[A]ny birth control that allows an egg to be fertilized and then somehow disrupts the process, that should be banned because it is essentially taking human life,” he said. “Now, all other birth control types that don’t allow fertilization, that would be completely fine and there’s nothing morally wrong with any of that.”

Though he noted that SB 13 doesn’t specifically address it, Silk also objects to some in-vitro fertilization practices, which he said were “immoral.” “They fertilize a lot of eggs, use a couple of them, discard all the other fertilized eggs. Or freeze them for an indefinite period of time,” he said.

Silk has made efforts to restrict LGBTQ rights. He sponsored multiple iterations of a “Conscience Act,” which would allow for discrimination against LGBTQ people by allowing anybody in the state to refuse to provide “services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges to be used to promote, advertise, endorse or advocate for a specific marriage, lifestyle or behavior.” In an interview with the New York Times about so-called conscience measures in 2015, Silk said that “[Gay people] don’t have a right to be served in every single store.”

Silk doubled down on the statement, according to the Advocate in a subsequent post to his campaign website. “Yes, I did say that homosexuals do not have the right to be served in every store, just as I do not believe that I, my family, or anyone else have the right to be served in every private business,” he reportedly said. “The right to provide services should be the decision of the business owners. We need to keep our country free and stop this radical, intolerant, movement.”