Controversial Abortion Bill Gains Steam

When it comes to America’s ongoing abortion debate these days, all eyes are on Ohio.  Like many governing bodies across the nation, the Ohio State Legislature has taken up a number of anti-abortion bills over the past few weeks.  However, one measure in particular is raising hope for anti-abortion advocates who seek to place further restrictions on the procedure.  State Rep. Lynn Wachtmann (R.-Napolean) has introduced the Human Heartbeat Protection Act—now being dubbed the Heartbeat Bill—a highly contentious proposal that has the potential to make Ohio the new battleground in the ongoing and decades-old abortion debate.

Unlike other proposals that seek to limit or ban controversial abortion procedures, the Heartbeat Bill would make abortion unlawful once a fetal heartbeat is detected.  While many in the anti-abortion movement are lauding the move, proponents of choice claim that this restriction would severely limit a woman’s right to choose.  Fetal heartbeats are detectable as early as 18 days after conception, distinguishing this proposal as the first of its kind. 

Many on the choice side of the aisle have voiced concern over the short time frame the bill allows before preventing legal access to abortion procedures.  According to ABC News, Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro Choice, said, “They are making decisions for women in banning abortion basically before some women even know they are pregnant.  Technology can give us information, but it can’t make the decision for us.”

While the bill does little to address these concerns, it does provide a loophole for cases in which the pregnancy threatens a mother’s health or life—a frequent area of worry for pro-choice advocates. 

Although the Heartbeat Bill was introduced just last week, 42 of Ohio’s 99 representatives have already signed on in support of the measure.  At a press conference on Feb. 9, Wachtmann said, “We’re excited about the opportunity to restore legal protection to babies whose hearts are beating.  When passed, this legislation will be the nation’s strongest pro-life legislation.”

It is this sentiment that has choice advocates preparing for a potentially lengthy battle.  The Heartbeat Bill is indeed the most restrictive measure to be taken up by a state legislature to date.  If passed, the anti-abortion movement may gain the traction needed to push for similar measures in other states where abortion is a top priority on the minds of conservative lawmakers.

Pro-choice opponents have predictably labeled the bill as “extreme” and “unconstitutional.”  While many have voiced opposition mainly on the grounds that restrictions would limit a woman’s right to choose, pro-choice advocates are also focusing in on the potential financial burden of battling the Heartbeat Bill out in Ohio’s courts.

Last week, Kellie Copeland, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, said that the bill’s passage “would entangle [Ohio] in a costly legal battle.”  Critics such as Copeland argue that an expensive legal drama would be extremely detrimental in tough economic times.  If passed, there is little doubt that the measure would be challenged in the courts.

While Copeland and her compatriots seem certain the measure will fail once it makes its way into a courtroom, anti-abortion advocates are hopeful that the bill will pass in the state legislature before heading to higher courts—possibly the Supreme Court.  To date, there have been no successful attempts to reverse the high court’s nearly four-decades-old Roe v. Wade ruling that has led to years of intense debate and scrutiny. 

According to ABC News, under the 1973 Supreme Court ruling, “a woman has the right to abort a fetus until it is ‘viable,’ meaning that it’s ‘potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid.’  It’s only at the point of viability—’usually placed at about seven months’—that states can restrict abortion.”

It is this premise that the Heartbeat Bill attempts to change.  Rather than protecting only those fetuses that lay at or above the seven-month threshold, the measure would protect human life in its earliest and most prenatal form.  Interestingly, this bill uses the heartbeat as the litmus test for life.  If proponents are able to pass this legislation and get their case in front of the Supreme Court (pending pro-choice groups challenging the law—which they will—and pending the high court agreeing to hear it—which may not be as likely), it would be a tremendous opportunity to reframe abortion’s legalities. 

Janet Porter, the president of Faith2Action and a key player in the drafting of the legislation. told the Kentucky Post, “It’s pretty simple.  If you can hear the baby’s heartbeat, then that child is protected by law.” 

Clearly, the stakes are high and the debate is fierce.  And not everyone on the anti-abortion side of the aisle is endorsing the Heartbat Bill.  In a rare occasion of strange bedfellows, some anti-choice advocates are agreeing with their legislative foes that Porter’s and Wachtmann’s ideals will never play out to their favor in a court of law.  For this reason, some in the anti-abortion movement would rather see energies go toward legislative measures that they believe have a better chance of advancing to become law (restrictions on late-term abortions and the like).

With the wave of electoral change that swept through all levels of government in November, there is certainly a friendlier environment when it comes to implementing more restrictive abortion laws.  That said, there’s no telling where the Heartbeat Bill is headed.  It’s been 38 years since Roe v. Wade forever changed the national discourse, yet the flames of debate are still being fanned.  Regardless of where one stands on the abortion front, this proposal is certainly one worth keeping an eye on.