Legislators clash over abortion during lame-duck session

In the final weeks of two-year legislative session, Ohio lawmakers are sparring over several bills related to abortion and women’s health, leading to charges from Democrats that their Republican colleagues are engaging in a “war on women.”

On Wednesday, a Republican-dominated House panel endorsed a bill that would effectively stave off federal funding for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of Ohio and other family planning-only clinics.

At the same meeting, Republican lawmakers introduced legislation that would criminalize abortions performed because the fetus is of a certain gender.

Another highly publicized anti-abortion bill, which would prohibit abortion once a heartbeat is detected, has stalled because of divisions within the right to life movement over tactics and constitutional questions. Rep. Lynn Wachtmann, who led the effort on the so-called Heartbeat Bill, still wants it to move forward, however.

Meanwhile, a Democratic bill that is being touted as a comprehensive sexual health and education measure, had its first and probably last hearing this week.

Wachtmann, chairman of the House Health and Aging Committee, said he gave the bill a “complimentary hearing” on Wednesday, but it won’t go any further, at least not this year.

The clash over women’s health issues comes as lawmakers work to end their business before the end of the year. It also comes after a bruising presidential election battle in which women were a key voting bloc. The liberal MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow put Ohio in her sights Wednesday, saying Republican lawmakers had failed to learn the lesson from the election. And Democratic women in the legislature this week decried the push to pass abortion-related bills so soon after an election where several pro-life candidates lost.

Sen. Nina Turner, D-Cleveland, called the Planned Parenthood bill “absolutely immoral and unconscionable.”

“These services are for poor and working class women who are not second class citizens and do not need a permission slip from government, mainly male-dominated government, to decide what’s in their best interests, what’s in the best interests of their families and their bodies,” Turner said.

Wachtmann argued the bill to cut funding from family planning centers was not anti-woman but intended to spread those dollars to more facilities in more areas.

“There are Democrats who call us anti-woman — they are abhorrent, crazy people intent on killing every baby they can,” Wachtmann said.

A battleground has already formed over the bill banning abortions that are done because of the sex of the fetus. The bill targets physicians, nurses and other health professionals, who would face six to 12 months in prison if they fail to report known or suspected cases.

Sex-selective abortion is widespread in the East and South Asia, where societies value men over women.

Bill sponsors Reps. Cheryl Grossman, R-Grove City, and Matt Lynch, R- Bainbridge Twp., said other western countries have banned the practice, and the U.S. lags behind. The U.S. House rejected a similar bill earlier this year, and Democrats claimed Republicans forced the vote as a political move.

The sponsors said U.S. Census data showing a decline in the number of female babies born relative to male babies is evidence of sex-selective abortion.

But Democrats questioned the data and called the bill “a solution looking for a problem.”

“We have to go on statistics, we have to go on numbers, but from where I’m sitting, there is not a problem in Youngstown, there’s not a problem in Ohio,” said Rep. Robert Hagan, D-Youngstown.

Wachtmann, who cosponsored the bill, said the initial questions about the legislation indicate more information needs to be reported about abortions. He said he intends to move it out for a full House vote.

“[The bill is] more than pro-life,” Wachtmann said. “According to testimony, it’s pro-woman.”

Democrats are trying to tie the bills to Gov. John Kasich, who had told reporters he planned to meet with state lawmakers to plan the lame duck session. Kasich, speaking at the Republican Governors Association conference in Las Vegas, denied having a hand in that agenda Thursday, according to a Columbus Dispatch report.

“The legislature does their business and I deal with their legislation when it’s finished,” Kasich said. “I am pro-life, but as far as their legislation, I’m just not a part of it. I’m just not. I am pro-life but I don’t try to predict what their legislation is going to do.”

Although Democrats have voiced opposition to the Heartbeat Bill (House Bill 125), it is Republicans who have kept the bill from advancing. Senate President Tom Niehaus, R-New Richmond, has said the bill will die unless the pro-life community can reach a compromise. Wachtmann said the groups have met but would not divulge details of any changes. Niehaus said this week he plans to meet with each GOP senator before deciding whether to bring the bill to the floor.

One bill that won’t make it to the floor in either chamber: The comprehensive sexual health and education bill sponsored by Rep. Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood.

The so-called Prevention First Act would establish standards for treatment of sexual assault victims, require HIV/AIDS education and create a state teen pregnancy task force. The bill would also create a comprehensive sex education program for schools that de-emphasizes abstinence. Schools could opt out, but would still have to teach various contraceptive methods in addition to abstinence.

Antonio joked that Republican congressional candidates who flubbed comments about rape and pregnancy during the election could have benefited from the type of program her bill creates.

“Women want more tools to ensure women will be safe and healthy,” she said.