Here we go again. For the third time since 2011, Ohio’s legislature is debating a heartbeat ban – a blatantly unconstitutional ban on abortion starting as soon as an embryonic heartbeat can be detected, often at four weeks past fertilization or sooner. In 2011, the bill passed the house but never made it up in the senate for a vote, not even when lawmakers used their post-election lame duck session to try to force it back onto the floor, figuring with no one’s reelection campaigns jeopardized in the process the ban was sure to pass. It popped up in 2013 with a new sponsor and a room full of Duggars (of “19 Kids and Counting” fame) promoting it, but it failed, too.
Now, another lame duck session has revived the ban, and the house at first glance appears eager to move it out for a full vote. A committee hearing to debate the bill was announced with so little notice that opponents had just hours to submit their testimony in order beat the deadline. In order to guarantee the bill would make it out of the committee, last minute substitutions were made to the panel and four members were replaced. The chairman was utterly unashamed of the manipulation. “My goal would be to have the hearing and vote the heartbeat bill out of committee today,” Republican state Rep. Lynn Wachtmann told reporters. Three of the new committee members had already voted in favor of the bill in a previous session.
Wachtmann also limited the debate to just a few hours, holding a vote on the bill at just three hours after the committee begain. According to Wachtmann, the proposal had been through enough debates in the past so there was no need to listen to it all over again. The bill passed committee 11 to 6, in a party line vote.
Abortion rights advocates condemned Wachtmann’s tactics, saying that his rush job in passing the bill was a sign of how unpopular he knew the legislation was with Ohioans. “The fact that this committee is trying to pass this legislation in such a sneaky quick manner should be highly concerning to everyone on this committee, no matter where they stand on the issue of abortion,” said Jaime Miracle, Deputy Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, who argued that moving such a controversial bill as HB 248 through committee so quickly proves to opponents that the public is not supportive of it, according to John Michael Spinelli at Plunderbund, a local Ohio progressive news site.
They are right that the heartbeat ban has little public support. Even in its hey day in 2012, the public was evenly divided over whether or not such a restriction should be passed. Since then we have seen North Dakota pass its own heartbeat ban, only to have it blocked by the courts as unconstitutional in an expensive legal battle, and a slightly less restrictive version in Arkansas have the same end result.
Taxpayers, unimpressed by legal challenges that are being paid for out of their wallets, aren’t likely to be too enthusiastic about yet another run at the courts.
While the committee may be trying to force a vote through quickly in order to avoid public scrutiny, though, there may be another reason for the hurry up pace. Maybe, just maybe, Wachtmann and his cohorts are simply paying lip service to the bill and getting it off their desk so they can wipe their hands of it, knowing its never actually going to become law.
It’s a scenario that makes a great deal of sense if you look at the number of times the bill has failed in the past. The 2011 version easily made it through the House only to falter in the Senate where the majority leader refused to let it through committee. Debates over the bill itself were not anti-abortion activists versus abortion rights activists, like we so often see at the state houses, but the extremists from Faith 2 Action and the newly formed Ohio Pro-Life Action, while it was Ohio Right to Life, the state’s own National Right to Life Committee affiliate, urging the politicians to vote the bill down. Even James Bopp Jr., legal counsel of the NRLC came out to testify against the bill.
In anger at her bill being blocked, Janet Folger Porter, head of Faith 2 Action, took her ire out on the “pro-life” lawmakers that wouldn’t support her bill. Since 2011, she has organized not against Democratic, pro-abortion rights political candidates, but those on her own side that she felt betrayed her, including Republican Governor John Kasich and other GOP leaders she felt didn’t help in her crusade to end abortion.
Wachtmann, the original 2011 bill sponsor, no doubt knows just how unlikely it is that a heartbeat ban will this session. Is his plan to put in the absolute minimal effort needed to appease Porter and their heartbeat ban backers, then get the entire process over with as quickly as possible?
While the bill moved quickly through the house committee, and will probably sail through the full house once more this year, the odds of a heartbeat ban eventually being law in Ohio is virtually zero at this point. Republican state senate President Keith Faber has already said he doesn’t believe the bill has enough votes to pass the senate, telling reporters, “I have grave concerns that if the heartbeat bill were to be passed, that it would jeopardize some of the other good, pro-life work that we’ve done in the General Assembly.”
Even if it did make it past both chambers, don’t expect Governor Kasich to sign it. Kasich is just one of many in a pool full of mediocre potential GOP 2016 presidential candidates, and the last thing Kasich would want to do is jeopardize his base. Although all of the Republican presidential wannabes are going to feel the need to show off their pro-life credentials, Kasich will have far better results touting his stealth war on abortion clinics (which he has managed to close at a rapid clip) than with an unconstitutional, expensive legal challenge to his name, especially one that National Right to Life doesn’t want to have happen.
Mainstream abortion opponents believe that between 20-week so-called “fetal pain” bans and admitting privileges bills that are all but wiping all clinics off the map, they have just the right legal challenges heading up to the Supreme Court. If those cases don’t overturn Roe v. Wade outright, it will at least make abortion so impossible to access that the right to terminate will be available only in the most extreme and limited circumstances. A “personhood” bill, a heartbeat ban, or another blatantly unconstitutional pre-viability ban would not only undo their decades of incremental work, but potentially reaffirm the right to an abortion in a way that could make it impossible for them to recover.
The anti-abortion movement is not going to let Ohio put all of their years of work in jeopardy. Regardless of what happens in the House, and even the Senate, the Ohio heartbeat ban will never be signed into law.
Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker and activist. Her current project, Clinic Stories, focuses on telling the history of legal abortion one clinic at a time. Robin’s articles have appeared at Slate, Cosmopolitan.com, Rolling Stone, Ms. Magazine and other publications.