The bitter cold Thursday outside a House hearing room stood in sharp contrast to some heated moments during testimony in Columbus on HB 248, AKA “the Heartbeat Bill”, sponsored by Republican Rep. Christine Hagen.  If signed into law by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the bill would make it illegal for a woman to seek an abortion if a fetal heartbeat is detected, which could occur even before a women knows she’s pregnant.

Unusual by general House procedures, today’s hearing came as a surprise to many, since it would offer both sponsor testimony and a vote. The controversial bill generally “prohibits a person from knowingly and purposefully performing or inducing an abortion with the specific intent of causing or abetting the termination of the life of an unborn human individual whose fetal heartbeat has been detected,” according to the bill’s language. Proponents and opponents are in general agreement that pursuing it is an attempt by pro-life advocates to bring this controversial issue to the U.S. Supreme Court so the nine-member high court can use it to either overturn Roe V. Wade or uphold the historic 7-2 decision in 1973 that declared a women has a right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, which included a woman’s decision to have an abortion.

Following hours of testimony this morning, the 19-Member Health and Aging Committee chaired by Rep. Lynn Wachtmann, a fierce social and fiscal conservative and co-sponsor of the bill, voted 11-6 along party lines to move the bill out of committee and to Rules Committee, where bills move to await a floor vote, which isn’t guaranteed.

Cacus leaders may continue to protect Gov. Kasich from having this kind of controversial bill land on his desk, immediately impacting his 2016 presidential aspirations. With the Lame Duck session nearly over, the bill could die in Rules. However, should the Hands of the Lord be on the bill, and it successfully wends its way through the Senate and to the governor’s desk, Kasich could cement his relationship with his and the nation’s Evangelical, pro-life base by signing it.

Given Kasich’s reluctance to say more on the issue other than he’s “pro-life,” it’s wouldn’t be a surprise he accepts it, in spite of his wanting to remake the GOP in his own image. The harshest bill of its kind in the nation, HB 248 would create both civil and criminal penalties for physicians who don’t abide by its restrictive provisions.

Chairman Wachtmann cautioned before testimony started that everyone was to be civil and watch their words or they could be asked to leave the room. On two occasions, one involving Democrat John Patrick Carney, an attorney specializing in healthcare issue, and one involving Republican Ron Maag, who obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in interdisciplinary sciences, Chairman Wachtmann pounded his gavel loudly, warning Carney and Maag, “We’re not going to go there!”


State Reps Carney and Hagan listen to testimony on the “heartbeat bill” – photo by John Spinelli

State Rep. John Patrick Carney raised the issue of the economic costs of the bill and whether doctors liability insurance would be impacted such that Ohio might not be a desirable place to practice. According to fiscal notes accompanying HB 248, the bill would likely increase costs for multiple state agencies.  The Ohio Department of Health could “realize an increase in costs to inspect the medical records from any facility that performs abortions,” The State Medical Board would see “an increase in administrative and possible investigative costs,” and an increase in the “costs to investigate, prosecute, adjudicate, and sanction violators” of the bill would go up for county criminal justice systems.

Jaime Miracle, Deputy Director of NARA Pro-Choice Ohio, said, “The fact that this committee is trying to pass this legislation in such a sneaky quick manner should be highly concerning to everyone on this committee, no matter where they stand on the issue of abortion.” She said moving such a controversial bill as HB 248 through committee so quickly proves to opponents that the public is not supportive of it. “We are not here today because the legal underpinnings of Roe are weak, or because the constitutional right to privacy that encompasses a woman’s right to choose is radical or unsupported by our nation’s legal history. Quite the contrary. The right to privacy is a fundamental constitutional right, and its inclusive of a woman’s right to choose evolved necessarily from decades of legal precedent.” A video of Ms. Miracle’s testimony is included below.

Although Talcott Camp, deputy director of the A.C.L.U.’s reproductive freedom project, wasn’t in Columbus today, he previously staked out the group’s legal position on bills like HB 248: “Politicians do not have the right to interfere in serious and personal decisions that should only be made by a woman with the help of her family and her doctor,” he said, as reported by Salon. If the General Assembly passes the bill and Gov. Kasich signs it, a spokesman for the ACLU Ohio said it would be immediately challenged in court.

Also providing testimony today was Carrie Davis, representing The League of Women Voters of Ohio. “Reproductive health is one of the most private aspects of ones life. It is a personal and private matter. It is not the government’s place to obstruct such a fundamental individual right,” she said in prepared remarks. “Good government is deliberative, public, and listens to all sides before reaching a reasoned decision. Those principles are wholly absent in what has become known as ‘gotcha’ hearings, such as this, where a hearing is announced late in the day, with virtually no opportunity for the public to even be aware of the hearing, let alone time to comment before the bill is rushed through,” she said, adding. “It is almost as if the committee is seeking to discourage public participation and a truly deliberative process.”

Roy Nichols, a retired attorney, defended the bill, saying, “Since 1973 medical science has advanced to the point that viability has been achieved at points much earlier than previously imagined. In addition, it has been medically established that a fetal heartbeat can be detected far earlier in the pregnancy than observed in the past, and that the unborn child is not only capable of experiencing paid, but does experience great pain during the abortion process. The unborn child is hardly ‘mere tissue’ or a ‘part of a woman’s body.’ It is a living being, sensitive to pain.”

Nichols argued that Ohio has the power to declare an unborn child to be a person entitled to legal protection once a heartbeat is detected. He based his opinion on his belief that, according to the 14th Amendment, no state may deprive any “person” of life, liberty or property without due process of law, and that logic can be applied to an unborn child if the state defines such a child as a “person.”

One witness juxtaposed an Ohio legislature that just recently said it really shouldn’t know much about toxic cocktails compounded to help carry out capital executives, with one that wants to know everything that goes on between a woman and her physician, which would be criminalized by HB 248.

Commenting on the vote Thursday in committee, NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Executive Director Kellie Copeland said, “It’s bad enough that this week the Ohio Senate confirmed Governor Kasich’s legally unqualified pick to head the Ohio Department of Health. Now the Ohio House Health Committee has approved legislation that would outlaw abortion before many women know they are pregnant,” said Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio. “The members of the Health Committee are so callous that they refused to add amendments to provide exceptions for victims of rape and incest or to remove criminal penalties that could be used to imprison doctors that provide abortion care. The chilling effect of this crusade is being felt throughout the medical community and will no doubt result in talented physicians leaving Ohio to practice in other states.”