This week, Republican lawmakers in Ohio pulled out all the stops to advance an extreme anti-abortion bill in the state’s lame duck session. They added the legislation to the schedule at the last minute on Thursday morning, and even restructured a House committee — replacing the legislators who oppose the measure with different legislators who support it — to ensure the bill’s passage.
HB 248, which now heads to a vote in the full House, would criminalize abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, something that typically occurs around six weeks of pregnancy. That shaves off about 17 weeks from the window that women can access legal abortion services under Roe v. Wade. It’s also so early that many women may not even realize they’re pregnant at that point.
Ohio was the first state to introduce a so-called “heartbeat ban” back in 2011. Since then, other states like Michigan, Alabama, Kentucky, and Mississippi have attempted to follow suit. But these measures are so radical that they often fail to garner enough support even among anti-choice Republicans, some of whom argue it’s better to advance an incremental strategy to limit access to abortion that won’t trigger immediate court challenges.
This conflict is on full display in Ohio. One of the primary reasons that lawmakers haven’t yet been able to pass a heartbeat ban, despite repeated attempts to re-introduce the legislation, is because some abortion opponents in the state — including Ohio Right to Life, the state’s oldest and largest anti-choice group — haven’t historically supported the measure. Ohio Right to Life remains “neutral” on HB 248 this time around.
The only state to successfully pass a six-week abortion ban, North Dakota, has not been allowed to enforce it. In April, a federal judge permanently struck down that state law, concluding that it “cannot withstand a constitutional challenge.” Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have already warned Ohio lawmakers that a similar challenge will be brought against a six-week abortion ban if it advances in their state.
Reproductive rights groups are frustrated that abortion opponents would waste taxpayer dollars on risking a lawsuit. “It’s irresponsible for the legislature to entertain this legislation once again,” Stephanie Kight, the president of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio, said in a statement.
The far-right sponsors of the legislation, on the other hand, say they would welcome a legal challenge against Roe v. Wade — and that’s one of the primary reasons they want to pass the six-week ban in the first place.
On Thursday, they did everything in their power to make that happen. Rep. Lynn Wachtmann (R), one of the bill’s sponsors, told the Plain Dealer that three Republicans and one Democrat were changed on the Health and Aging Committee “to ensure the panel had enough members present and votes to give the bill initial approval.”
During the committee hearing, Wachtmann said that he is committed to working around the “politics” that have prevented the heartbeat ban from advancing in the past. “I think there were some in our caucus who really didn’t want this to come up before the primaries and some didn’t want it to come up before the general election,” he said. “I’ve never stopped working to get this done sooner or later.”
But his fellow Republicans may not be on the same page. The Columbus Dispatch reports that HB 248 has an uncertain future in the House because some lawmakers are “unhappy with the hardball tactics used by bill supporters.”
Ohio already has some of the most stringent anti-choice laws in the country. Harsh restrictions on abortion clinics are forcing them to close their doors one by one, leading an increasing number of Ohio residents to cross the border into Michigan to obtain abortion care. Planned Parenthood has been fighting in court to keep Cincinnati’s last abortion clinic open.