Ohio Senate Passes 'Heartbeat' Bill

The legislation, which could outlaw abortions as soon as six weeks after conception, next goes to the Ohio House of Representatives. Legal challenges have struck down similar laws in other states.

click to enlarge "Heartbeat" bill sponsor Ohio Sen. Kristina Roegner (second from right) appears on a panel by pro life group Ohio Right to Life. - Ohio Senate
Ohio Senate
"Heartbeat" bill sponsor Ohio Sen. Kristina Roegner (second from right) appears on a panel by pro life group Ohio Right to Life.

The Ohio Senate yesterday voted 19-13 to pass a bill that would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected — as soon as six weeks after conception.

It's not the first time the restrictions — which, if passed, would be among the strictest in the country — have come before the Ohio General Assembly. But they may have a better chance of passing into law and withstanding legal challenges now than at any time in the past.

The bill has roughly 50 co-sponsors as well as the support of pro-life groups like Ohio Right to Life. But last month, dozens also testified or submitted written statements opposing the bills, including NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio and the Ohio State Medical Association, on the grounds that it would block women's access to needed health care.

""The OSMA is extremely concerned due to specific provisions of the legislation that allow for civil and criminal penalties for clinicians who provide medical care related to women's reproductive health issues," the group said in written testimony.

The Republican-lead General Assembly last year passed a similar bill, but it was vetoed by then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich. It was the second time Kasich had vetoed the legislation due to concerns about its constitutionality.

New Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, however, says he will sign the bills into law.

The version of the bill the state Senate passed does not include exceptions for rape or incest. Four Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the legislation. 

Republican senators who voted for the legislation say it is part of the state's duty to protect the unborn. Bill sponsor Republican State Sen. Kristina Roegner argued that Ohio must protect fetuses as soon as they are viable, and that current laws don't go far enough.

“We need a new standard. The heartbeat bill provides a sensible solution,” she said.

But critics say it is government interference in women's choices about their body. 

"This feels like, looks like, reads on paper like it’s a political intrusion into an extremely personal decision that a woman would make with her doctor,” Sen. Nicki Antonio, a Democrat, said during debate over the bill. Antonio presented an amendment to the bill that would have exempted rape and incest cases, but it was voted down.

Courts have struck down similar heartbeat laws in other states, including North Dakota and Iowa, as recently as last month. Federal courts have declared the laws violate the constitution under Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that guarantees abortion rights.

Supporters of the law say it could be part of a wave of legislation that succeeds before the Supreme Court, with its two new conservative additions.

"Ultimately, this will work its way up to the United States Supreme Court," DeWine told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt in January. "And they’ll make that decision.”

The legislation next goes to the Ohio House of Representatives, where it has a good chance of passage.

Bill co-sponsor State Rep. Candice Keller of Middletown says the aim of the legislation is simple: demonstrate that the laws can withstand legal scrutiny and protect the lives of the unborn.

"After nine years of waiting, it is time," she told the House committee, of which she is a member, last month.

However, representatives from NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio argued in testimony that the legislation would represent a "seismic shift" in abortion access policy.

"Abortion will be effectively outlawed in Ohio, and likely in many of our neighboring states," NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Executive Director Kellie Copeland told the Senate committee last month. "Abortion may remain legal in some states, but they may not be able to handle the influx of patients to their states."

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