Supporters of an Oregon bill to expand access to abortion and gender-affirming care pose outside the state Capitol after a rally. A separate proposed constitutional amendment would expand equal rights protections for reproductive health choices, sexual orientations and gender identities. (Photo by Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregon lawmakers heard about two hours of emotional testimony on Tuesday about a proposed constitutional amendment that would shore up abortions rights and ban discrimination for sexual orientation and gender identity.

Senate Joint Resolution 33, discussed in the Senate Rules Committee, would go to voters in the 2024 election if the Legislature passes it. The goal of the measure is to protect existing rights of Oregonians to make decisions about their marriages, families and health care, including gender-affirming care and reproductive health care.

The amendment would clarify that Oregonians, regardless of gender, gender identity and sexual orientation, are protected against discrimination in housing, employment and state services. 

The proposal comes amid a wave of  anti-abortion bills in state legislatures following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year that overturned Roe v. Wade, rescinding  national right to an abortion. 

Oregon has no barriers to obtaining an abortion, unlike most other states. But supporters say the proposed amendment is necessary to ensure Oregon does not adopt abortion restrictions or anti-LGBTQ laws in the future. Opponents, many of them anti-abortion, say the measure goes too far and could have unintended consequences.

The proposal is one of the most divisive of the session.

Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton and the first openly lesbian Oregon senator, called for civility from both sides during the hearing. 

“Words have an impact far beyond these walls,” said Lieber, who introduced the bill in the committee. “People are watching and it is impactful for them what you say.”

Supporters weigh in 

Supporters include Democratic lawmakers, advocates, health providers and others who say they want to safeguard their future rights – and those of their transgender children. 

“As the only LGBTQ member in the Senate, this bill is personal,” said Lieber, the committee chair. “I know how it feels to live somewhere that doesn’t accept you for who you are. From bans on abortion to bans on medical care for transgender people, hate is on the rise across the country, and this is Oregon’s opportunity to respond with hope and our values.”

Other chief sponsors of the amendment are Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego; and Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland.

Sandy Chung, executive director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon said the organization believes people should have the right and freedom to make private decisions, including who they marry and what health care they have without “undue political control.”

“With the recent years’ attacks on trans rights, abortion access and signals to incoming attacks on same-sex marriage, the time is now to enshrine Oregon’s values in our state constitution,” Chung said.

Voters deserve the chance to make their voices heard, said Jennifer Williamson, interim executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon.

“In Oregon, we trust people to make decisions about their bodies,” Williamson said.

The measure would eliminate language in the state constitution that defines a marriage as between a man and a woman. While same-sex marriage is allowed in Oregon, that language has remains unchanged.

“It’s time to amend the shameful anti-gay history that’s still written, in black and white, in that constitution,” said Margot Martin, deputy executive director of  Basic Rights Oregon, a Portland-based advocacy group for all sexual and gender identities.

Another person who testified, Marian Hammond, CEO of Brink Communications in Portland, told lawmakers she’s the proud parent of two transgender children.

Her children are thriving and happy teenagers, she said.

But she said they talk almost daily about their fears for children in other states, Hammond said. One child asked her if she could get arrested for being his mom when the family was on a layover at the Houston airport during a vacation trip, she said in submitted testimony.

“While I assured him that there wasn’t a troop of gender police waiting at the arrival gate, I felt the fear, too,” Hammond said.

Opponents urge caution  

Opponents criticized the proposal, especially the abortion protections. They favor adoption instead.

 One woman, Amy Miles of Astoria, testified she shouldn’t be alive. She survived a botched abortion in 1980, developing cerebral palsy because of the procedure.

The day that I celebrate as my birthday was actually the day I was accidentally born alive,” Miles said.

She urged lawmakers to reconsider embedding abortion rights in the constitution.

Lois Anderson, executive director of Oregon Right to Life, an anti-abortion organization, said the measure would codify discrimination against “developing babies under the guise of women’s rights.”

“We know that each child developing in her mother’s womb is a distinct human being,” Anderson said. “Each baby has a purpose and a future that is not ours to determine.”

Rep. Court Boice, R-Gold Beach, said he opposed the measure as someone who is “staunchly pro-life and pro-adoption.”

“I ask you to please stop this bill,” he said. “It’s not the way to bring us together in my strong opinion.”

Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend and vice chair of the Rules Committee, asked the legislative counsel about implications of the proposal.

Would it allow the Legislature to pass a law that only allows biological women to participate in women’s sports? he asked.

Would it allow schools to legally separate bathrooms by gender?

He said those questions need to be answered.

“If we don’t know the answer to that, it seems that the measure should be written in a way that it is clear,” Knopp said.

The measure faces a committee vote on Thursday.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Ben Botkin, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report.