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Published: Monday, 12/12/2011

Irregular heartbeat

Ohio’s politically potent anti-abortion movement is waging a civil war over a bill before the state Senate that is not just extreme but deliberately, defiantly unconstitutional. If senators are foolish enough to join their House colleagues in enacting the measure, it will deserve a prompt and emphatic veto by Gov. John Kasich.

The so-called heartbeat bill would prohibit abortion of a fetus with a detectable heartbeat. That can occur as soon as six weeks after conception — sometimes before a woman even realizes she is pregnant. Supporters say the measure would create the toughest restrictions of any state, outlawing as many as 90 percent of abortions that are now legal.

There’s just one problem: The proposed state law would defy the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Roe vs. Wade, which defined a constitutional right to abortion until a fetus can survive outside the womb. That generally does not occur until about the 24th week of pregnancy.

No problem at all, say the insurgent “right-to-life” activists who are promoting the bill. They welcome the inevitable legal challenge the law’s passage would invite, claiming it would give the current high court the opportunity to reverse Roe vs. Wade — a long-sought goal of the anti-abortion movement.

The advocates say they have run out of patience with the incremental abortion restrictions pursued by traditional anti-abortion groups. Ten local chapters of Ohio Right to Life have quit the statewide organization over its refusal to endorse the heartbeat bill. The Catholic Conference of Ohio also has declined to support the measure.

Many established anti-abortion leaders call the insurgents’ go-for-broke strategy reckless. They say a court test built on such a radical law as the heartbeat bill might cause the Supreme Court not to hear the case, or even to uphold precedent and affirm Roe vs. Wade, thus weakening the movement.

But you don’t have to identify with either side in the anti-abortion dispute to conclude that the heartbeat bill should be defeated, because it is simply bad law. It is a political and ideological statement masquerading as public policy.

The heartbeat measure is cruel in that it allows no exception for victims of rape or incest (although it includes exceptions for a pregnancy that threatens a woman’s life or physical health). It also is inconsistent in that it would subject doctors who perform abortions that violate the law to felony prosecutions and loss of their medical licenses, but does not call for criminal charges against the women who get those abortions.

Opponents of the bill warn that women who are denied the right to a legal and medically safe abortion may resort to more-dangerous options. They also note that the heartbeat bill appears to run afoul of Issue 3, the voter-approved initiative on this year’s ballot that amends the Ohio Constitution to restrict government health-care mandates.

Despite these shortcomings, the state House approved the bill this year. Advocates are pressuring senators to go along before they adjourn for the year.

Ohioans have challenged other overreaching behavior by state government this year, whether the issue is public employees’ bargaining rights, one-sided political maps, or partisan election “reform.” The heartbeat bill is another example of such extremism. Sooner or later, you’d hope that lawmakers and the governor’s office would get the message.

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