Abortion laws may get tighter this year

After a record year of laws, opponents want more restrictions.

Legislative accomplishments last year for abortion opponents included a state ban on late-term abortions, stronger parental consent laws for minors seeking abortions and a prohibition on state insurance exchanges from covering most abortions.

Despite their gains, anti-abortion groups said they want legislators this year to approve even tighter restrictions on terminating pregnancies, and they hope to help elect candidates to the U.S. Senate and White House who can aid their goal of overturning Roe v. Wade.

“I think we have made a lot of progress, but by no means does that mean the work is done,” said Paul Coudron, executive director of Dayton Right to Life.

On Friday, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine certified a petition by anti-abortion supporters allowing them to collect signatures for a “personhood” amendment that seeks to bestow fertilized human eggs with full personal rights.

Although abortion-rights groups suffered setbacks last year, they say some of the bills introduced or passed by state lawmakers are unconstitutional and will not withstand a court challenge.

The ACLU of Ohio has vowed to sue over the new law denying abortion coverage in state exchanges, and it also promised to sue if the controversial “heartbeat” bill is enacted.

Gov. John Kasich in 2011 signed four pieces of legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature that either put additional restrictions on abortion or benefited the anti-abortion movement, said Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life.

“Never in the history of the pro-life movement have we had so many legislative measures enacted in one year,” Gonidakis said.

New state laws prohibit public hospitals from performing abortions and ban abortion coverage in the insurance plans of local public employees.

Under new rules, the director of the Ohio Department of Health must apply for federal grants to fund abstinence education with the goal of cutting down on unplanned pregnancies. Anti-abortion student groups on college campuses now cannot be denied use of school funds or facilities.

Kasich also signed legislation that makes it harder for minors to get abortions without parental consent, and a law forbidding health insurance plans through the new federal health care law from providing coverage for abortions, except when the woman’s life is at risk or if she is a victim of rape or incest.

Lawmakers also passed a bill outlawing abortions that take place after 20 weeks if a doctor determines the fetus can live outside the womb.

This law was the “highlight” of the year, and imposes some of the most significant restrictions on abortions in decades, said Coudron, with Dayton Right to Life.

The 2012 outlook

Abortion-rights supporters said 2011 was definitely a “terrible” year for women’s reproductive rights in the state and anticipate this year not to be much better.

“Ohio is one of the most restrictive states in the country, and if 2011 is any indication, it is going to become more restrictive,” said Elizabeth Nash, an analyst of state policies on reproductive rights with the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice, nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C.

Nash said social conservatives swept many of the elections in 2010, and with large majorities in state legislatures across the country, they can easily pass stringent abortion laws.

“We had over 90 abortion restrictions adopted in 2011 (across the country) — and that’s a lot considering the next highest total was 34 in 2005,” she said.

Emboldened by last year’s successes, Ohio Right to Life said it hopes this year to kill funding to Planned Parenthood, appropriate funds to centers that provide pregnant women with counseling and prenatal care and help elect a U.S. president and senator who share their views.

They say their goal is for an anti-abortion U.S. president and Senate to help seat Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade.

Right to Life groups also want state or federal lawmakers to pass a bill that requires pregnant women to either hear or see the fetal heartbeat before having an abortion.

But anti-abortion advocates in Ohio are divided over a bill, which passed the Ohio House over the summer, that would outlaw abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detectable, often after six to eight weeks.

Ohio Right to Life’s Gonidakis said the “heartbeat” bill is unconstitutional because it effectively bans most abortions, and this means the legislation cannot survive a court challenge.

He said he fears the federal appellate court or the U.S. Supreme Court would issue a ruling that strengthens Roe v. Wade, and reverses other newly enacted restrictions on terminating pregnancies.

But Ohio ProLife Action, a group formed to support the “heartbeat” bill, said the legislation must pass because it has the potential to ban most abortions, possibly as many as 90 percent to 95 percent of them.

“We figure it would save about 26,000 lives a year,” said Linda Theis, the group’s president.

Abortions in Ohio declined to a record low of 28,123 in 2010, capping 10 straight years of declines, according to the state.

Theis said the bill, which is stalled in the Senate, would inevitably lead to a legal battle, and her group is eager to take their case to the Supreme Court.

“We want to bring them something to give them a chance to change their mind,” she said. “These guys at the Supreme Court level do not change their minds unless you give them a reason.”

Legal battles loom

Carrie Davis, staff counsel with the ACLU of Ohio, said the Roe v. Wade decision determined abortion is a legal procedure, and the “heartbeat” bill violates the Supreme Court ruling.

She said many women are unaware they are pregnant at six weeks, and the bill is clearly unconstitutional.

“House Bill 125, if it were to pass, would effectively be an absolute ban, and that’s been clearly prohibited by the courts for more than 35 years now,” Davis said.

Davis said also that Ohio voters approved Issue 3, which dictates that no law or rule will prohibit the purchase or sale of health care and health insurance.

She said the ban on abortion coverage in state health insurance exchanges contradicts this law, and the ACLU will sue to overturn it.

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-0749 or cfrolik @DaytonDailyNews.com.

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