COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — With a lame duck veto showdown brewing, Ohio again finds itself on the verge of imposing some of the most far-reaching abortion restrictions in the nation.
Republican Gov. John Kasich has already signed 20 abortion-limiting proposals into law in this politically divided state since taking office in 2011, including a so-called 20-week ban that both sides agree is unconstitutional. The number of full-service Ohio abortion clinics has shrunk from 16 to seven since he took office.
Yet the latest bills to reach his desk may be too extreme for Kasich, a potential 2020 presidential candidate who’s spent the past two years in a quest for bipartisan consensus.
The so-called “heartbeat bill” bans the procedure once a fetal heartbeat is detected. That can happen as early as six weeks into pregnancy. Kasich vetoed a similar bill two years ago and is likely to do so again. The other bill would outlaw dilation and evacuation, or D&E, one of the most common methods used in second-trimester abortions.
Kasich has until next week to act, and lawmakers have set sessions Dec. 27 and 28 for possible overrides.
Janet Porter, president of Faith2Action and the heartbeat bill’s author, said she believes Ohio is more conservative today than it was when her effort began nearly eight years ago. Advances in medical technology that have allowed fetal heartbeat detection earlier in pregnancy also have helped her make her case, she said.
“To deny a heartbeat is basically to deny science,” Porter said. “So, these people who are ranting and raving, they’re basically science-deniers. To ignore a heartbeat is heartless; that’s basically the message.”
Many Republican lawmakers initially looked askance at Porter’s lobbying tactics, which included teddy bear and balloon deliveries to legislators’ offices, an ultrasound conducted during a committee hearing and a Statehouse flyover. But now she said anti-abortion activists in other states, including Mississippi and Alabama, are looking to Ohio as a model.
Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, said she doesn’t think Ohioans are clamoring for the heartbeat bill any more today than they were in 2011. She said term-limited lawmakers elected from safe legislative districts redrawn in Republicans’ favor are pushing measures that are not necessarily in step with the state as a whole.
“Those of us around at the Statehouse have increasingly become accustomed to the theatrics and the antics of the anti-choice organizations,” Copeland said. “That doesn’t make their policy positions any better or any more in line with public health.”
Opponents of the heartbeat bill include the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Ohio Medical Association. Ohio Right to Life, the state’s oldest and largest anti-abortion organization, remains neutral.
Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst for the Guttmacher Institute, a policy group that supports abortion rights, said the heartbeat bill may have won vetoproof majorities for the first time in the Ohio House and Senate as the latest class of conservative lawmakers looks to make their mark on one of the last remaining wedge issues.
“Ohio has added so many abortion restrictions that this was just about the only thing left to pass. Ohio has the 20-week ban, waiting period, counseling, ultrasound, clinic regulations,” she said. “So Ohio has every single abortion restriction on the books. This is what’s left.”
No longer unified around previous wedge issues like gay marriage or gun rights, “Republicans or the conservatives have taken to considering abortion restrictions as the way to prove your conservative bona fides,” she said.
Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis said the D&E bill backed by his organization has a better chance of being signed by Kasich than the heartbeat bill because his group has built up to it.
“If we could just introduce a bill that banned abortion at the moment of conception and have it signed by the governor and upheld in the courts, we would have done that eight years ago,” he said. “Our problems lie in the federal court. So that’s why the incremental approach works best. If you ask for everything, the courts never say yes.”
But Porter, the heartbeat bill champion, says Brett Kavanaugh’s recent appointment to the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court means half-measures are no longer necessary to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
“It takes away every excuse that Right to Life has had, the governor’s had,” she said. “You don’t have to be a constitutional scholar to count to five.”
It’s unclear that an Ohio law would become the test case, however. Ohio’s 20-week ban, which prohibits abortion after 20 weeks of gestation, except when the mother’s life is in danger, has been on the books for about two years, and is “clearly unconstitutional,” Gonidakis of Ohio Right to Life said. Yet, it’s so far failed to prompt a legal challenge. And the American Civil Liberties Union has identified about 14 cases already in the courts that could reach the high court sooner.
Nonetheless, Copeland, of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, said that since Kavanaugh’s appointment, abortion-rights proponents have been considering options for maintaining abortion access that don’t rely on the courts.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen at the Supreme Court in the future, and that means that the gerrymandering issue is more dangerous to us, it means that we really need people in office who are going to vote with the public health and not with extremists,” she said.