COLUMBUS -- A bill that would impose the strictest abortion restrictions in the nation has cleared the Ohio House, along with two additional measures that would put other limits on when the procedure could be used, though the main bill's prospects are uncertain in the Senate.
The Republican led-House voted 54-44 to pass legislation that would ban abortions after the first detectable fetal heartbeat, which can occur as early as six weeks into pregnancy. It now goes to the GOP-controlled Senate.
If it's enacted into law, supporters of the so-called heartbeat bill hope to provoke a legal challenge and overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion in the United States. The ruling upheld a woman's right to an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually at 22 to 24 weeks.
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"In order to make progress in protecting unborn babies, you have to first ask the courts to offer more protections," said the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Lynn Wachtmann, a Republican from Napoleon in northwest Ohio.
The heartbeat measure passed out of a legislative committee in March after several crowded hearings. At one, ultrasounds were performed on two women who were early in their pregnancies, so legislators could see and hear the fetal hearts.
The measure had stalled in the House as leaders sought legal advice as to whether the heartbeat bill could withstand court muster.
A Senate spokesman said that chamber expects to begin hearings on the three abortion bills, including the heartbeat measure, when they return after their summer break in September. A spokesman for Gov. John Kasich said the first-term Republican was closely following the bills' progress, but declined to say whether he would sign them into law if they were passed.
"The governor is pro-life, he believes strongly in the sanctity of human life," said Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols.
A Democratic attempt Tuesday to move the heartbeat bill back to committee failed to get traction, as many in the minority party blasted the measure as unconstitutional and contended it takes away a woman's right to make decisions about her body.
"I trust women," said state Rep. Connie Pillich, D-Montgomery. "I trust women more than I trust the government to make decisions about their medical care."
Republicans argued fetuses should be further protected and given rights under the Constitution. Though state Rep. Robert Hagan, a Youngstown Democrat, said he wanted to speak for those who are born specifically women, whose privacy rights he said were being squashed by a male-dominated Ohio House.
"Look around, women. Look around and see that you are surrounded by men, making a decision about your bodies, about your future," Hagan said. "Perhaps we should add the vasectomy to this legislation, see how comfortable men are."
Responding to such criticism, House Speaker William Batchelder told reporters, "When you abort a child, that's the ultimate deprivation of rights. That's it. The child is dead."
Debate on the heartbeat bill sometimes drew personal stories from the lawmakers, including state Rep. Kristina Roegner, a Hudson Republican who described going to the doctor while pregnant and not hearing the heartbeat of her unborn child.
"It was awful," she said. "And the doctor said, 'This pregnancy is not viable. You're going to lose this baby.'"
Roegner, who is anti-abortion, said a heartbeat is a good measure from the beginning of life until the end. "When you see someone lying on the floor unconscious, what's the first thing we check for?" she asked. "It's a pulse. It's to see if they have a beating heart."
Opponents of the bill, who rallied at the Statehouse on Tuesday ahead of the votes, said the legislation could endanger the lives of women, forcing them to seek the procedure in unhealthy circumstances.
The heartbeat measure includes an exception for medical emergencies, but not in cases of rape or incest.
"These bills will return us to the days of back-alley abortions and will not keep abortions from happening," said Cathy Levy, executive director of the Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. "Is the coat hanger what God would want for a beloved daughter?"
The Ohio Right to Life organization has also taken issue with the bill, fearing that a legal challenge could jeopardize other abortion limits in Ohio and expand access to legal abortions.
Instead, the group is throwing its support behind the two other abortion-related measures that passed the House.
The House voted 65-33 on a bill that would prohibit abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy if a physician determines the fetus would be able to survive outside the womb. The Senate has passed similar legislation.
A bill to prevent certain health insurers from covering abortions also cleared the House on a 62-36 vote. The bill aims to ensure that Ohio opts out of any coverage for abortions available through the federal health care overhaul.
Janet Folger Porter, who has been for pushing the passage of the heartbeat bill, said she was confident the legislation would be upheld if it was challenged in court.
"This is the closest we have ever been to protecting babies with beating hearts," said Porter, the president of Ohio-based Faith2Action. "When this passes, it will be the most protective legislation in the nation."
The House votes on the abortion-related bills come as the GOP-led Senate voted on a state budget proposal that included two abortion-related provisions.
One provision would prohibit governments from using public funds for health insurance policies covering abortions, except in certain cities and counties with home rule. The other would limit abortions at public facilities, except in cases when the life of the mother is endangered or rape or incest are involved.
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