‘Heartbeat Bill’ Divides Ohio Anti-Abortion Leaders

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Ohio’s once-unified anti-abortion movement has been splintered by the return of a former state leader rallying support for a restrictive bill that the head of Ohio Right to Life says is legally flawed.

Janet Porter, formerly Janet Folger in the 1990s when she was legislative director of Ohio Right to Life, spearheaded efforts to get House Bill 125, the so-called heartbeat bill, passed by the Ohio House in June. That caused a schism with other anti-abortion advocates who fear the bill could backfire and hinder progress on reducing abortions.

The disagreement within the movement caused Right to Life’s founding father to resign from the Ohio board in protest because he said Mike Gonidakis, executive director of the state organization, would not back the heartbeat bill, which would ban abortions once a heartbeat is detected, usually six or seven weeks into a pregnancy.

“I don’t know any other state where there’s such a division between the formal leadership and its troops,” said Dr. Jack Willke of Cincinnati, founder of National and Ohio Right to Life and current president of International Right to Life.

“His judgment is simply wrong,” Willke said, referring to Gonidakis.

But Gonidakis said it was a board decision to not back the bill because of the legal ramifications.

“Timing is everything,” Gonidakis said. “I don’t want to get set back 100 years because we pushed too hard to take down (Roe v. Wade).”

The dispute comes at a time when abortions have declined in Ohio for the past decade.

Willke said most Ohio chapters are on board with the heartbeat bill, despite the state chapter’s position.

“We’re disappointed to not have the leaderships from the state, but it’s not slowing us down in Cincinnati,” said Paula Westwood, executive director of the Cincinnati chapter.

After receiving approval from the GOP-controlled House, the bill is now in the hands of the Republican-dominated Ohio Senate, where there are no plans to move it to committee quickly.

“We’re a pro-life caucus, but there are concerns about the division in the pro-life community, so we’re taking our time,” said John McClelland, spokesman for Senate President Tom Niehaus, R-New Richmond.

Although the senators are balking, Willke said he is confident the bill will pass and move through the court system until it reaches the U.S. Supreme Court.

“If the court doesn’t pass it, we’ll try again,” he said. “There’s no way the average person will say yes (to abortion) knowing there’s a heartbeat.”

A beating heart is exactly why Porter, president of Faith2Action, believes the heartbeat bill could take down Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that forbade states from banning abortions until a fetus is viable.

“People of Ohio stand for protecting babies with beating hearts,” Porter said.

Porter said Gonidakis is sitting on the bench instead of taking action to end abortion.

“With God, all things are possible,” Porter said, citing Ohio’s motto as well as the words of Jesus. “‘Thou shalt not kill’ made the top 10 commandments. We need to do what we were commanded to do.”

After leaving Ohio, Porter worked for the Center for Reclaiming America, a conservative Christian advocacy group in Florida, and in 2010 was let go by VCY America in Milwaukee for allegedly promoting “dominion” theology.

“I came back to Ohio for family, but I think I’m really here to do this,” Porter said at last Tuesday’s heartbeat bill rally in the Statehouse.

Despite the following Porter has amassed for the movement, Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, said the heartbeat bill is not the right approach.

“It does nothing to prevent unintended pregnancy,” Copeland said. “Why don’t we use things we know work, like sex education? Making abortion illegal will force women into bad situations.”

Gary Dougherty, state legislative director for Planned Parenthood, agrees that the bill would be detrimental to women.

“Rape victims are going to be ignored, victims of incest are going to be ignored, those who have health implications are going to be ignored … the effect will be felt the greatest by women in need of abortion care,” Dougherty said.

Both Copeland and Dougherty are even more fervently against the “personhood amendment,” which seeks to provide rights to a fetus at the moment of conception. That’s been proposed by yet another anti-abortion-rights faction, led by Dr. Patrick Johnston of Zanesville.

“We want to be clear when you begin so we don’t discriminate against the weakest Ohioans,” said Johnston, who is leading efforts in Ohio to put the personhood amendment on the ballot.

The personhood amendment is a nationwide movement, but only Mississippi has it on the ballot.

Johnston refuses to support the heartbeat bill because he said it regulates the killing of fetuses and allows too many abortions: for rape, incest and health of the mother.

“By allowing innocent people to die, we are saying they don’t deserve liberty,” Johnston said. “ So many pro-lifers are OK with regulating abortion. Government shouldn’t deprive people of the right to life, liberty.”

While Porter is pushing the heartbeat bill, she also supports the personhood amendment.

“I’m for everything, but (the heartbeat bill) will protect more babies than everything else we’v e done combined,” Porter said.

She said the heartbeat bill is more likely to be upheld by courts. Ironically, that is the same reason Gonidakis supports a ban on abortions once a fetus becomes viable outside the womb.

Alex Stuckey is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau.