COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ohio will be the testing ground for a new approach to limiting abortions that would prohibit women from ending pregnancies at the first detectable fetal heartbeat, sometimes as early as 18 days after conception.
Republican state Rep. Lynn Wachtmann is preparing to unveil the so-called Heartbeat Bill on Wednesday. It is the first proposal of its kind in the nation, with Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma among states watching closely.
The bill was created by Janet Folger Porter, a native Ohioan and president of the conservative interest group Faith2Action. She says she helped craft the nation's first ban on late-term abortions as a then-legislative director at Ohio Right to Life and again picked Ohio to be at the forefront. Forty of 99 Ohio representatives have signed onto the heartbeat bill.
"We can't carry all the babies out of the burning building in one trip, but this bill will carry most of them out with it," Porter said. "With this legislation, we can save more than 20,000 lives a year. We've been taking baby steps for a long time. This is a leap."
Lobbying for the bill with Republican Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-controlled state Legislature will take the form of heart-shaped balloons sent to their offices. The bill also is being promoted on a website that features a music video complete with dancing babies and a few fetuses appearing to keep the beat from inside the womb.
"After all, Ohio is the 'Heart of it All,' so it's only fitting that we protect our fellow human beings with beating hearts," Wachtmann said in a release announcing the bill. "Already, other states are looking to Ohio to lead the way and provide model legislation for them to pass in their states."
Kellie Copeland, executive director of the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, called all the fun images distasteful.
"It trivializes something that's really serious," she said. "If you're going to outlaw abortion in the first trimester, at a point when many women don't even know they're pregnant, it's not a warm fuzzy balloon situation."
Copeland said the vast majority of abortions in Ohio take place within the first three months of pregnancy and those that take place later are most often associated with medical emergencies.
"My immediate reaction is Ohio's facing this huge budget deficit, this economic crisis, and here you've got the chairman of the House Health Committee moving legislation that would plunge the state into years of costly litigation," she said. "This would be litigated immediately, and that's not going to be free. Meanwhile, we're talking about cutting Medicaid funding and women's health care."
Porter said she advocates abortion foes pursuing their goals regardless of legal consequences.
"Here's my feeling: I don't think we're called to sit on our hands and do things that only (U.S. Supreme Court) Justice (Anthony) Kennedy likes. Our role in a representative democracy is to approach our representatives, and that's exactly what we've done," she said. "I predict this is going to spark a wildfire."
Backers of the Ohio bill believe its strength is in its basis in science, as opposed to a moral message.
In his letter unveiling the bill to fellow lawmakers last week, Wachtmann pointed out, "Cardiac activity begins at a relatively precise moment in time, and the fetal heartbeat is readily detected with modern medical equipment of modest cost." The heartbeat can be heard within 18 to 24 days of conception at the earliest, and in almost all cases by six weeks.
"The pro-aborts are terrified because they know that this is going to work," Porter said. "They realize that we have taken from them all of their scare tactics and we have the strongest arguments."
"Saying it doesn't make it so," Copeland retorted. "They can proclaim what they want. The fact is we still have a Constitution and legal precedent in this country. This bill is blatantly unconstitutional, and they know it."
A spokesman for Kasich said the governor "is pro-life and believes in the sanctity of life" but will not weigh in on individual pieces of pending legislation.