Julie Carr Smyth
COLUMBUS: The chief advocate of a blocked Ohio bill that would impose the tightest abortion restriction in the nation vowed Wednesday to use a legislative maneuver to try to force a vote before year’s end despite the Senate president’s opposition.
Janet Folger Porter, president of the conservative action group Faith2Action, said she’ll work to collect 17 Republican signatures on a discharge petition, which can be used to force the so-called “heartbeat bill” out of a committee and onto the floor.
“Unless pro-lifers want to hold signs and march for 40 more years, they should pick up the phone and call every Republican senator and demand a floor vote for the Heartbeat Bill before their inaction kills it,” Porter said in a statement. “These Republicans have the power to bring the Heartbeat Bill to a vote before it dies.”
The bill proposed banning most abortions after the first detectable fetal heartbeat, as early as six weeks into pregnancy. Its backers hoped such a restriction would spark a legal challenge that could lead to overturning the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion up until viability, usually at 22 to 24 weeks.
Porter claimed that Republican Senate President Tom Niehaus broke a promise to the bill’s backers Tuesday with his decision not to schedule a vote on the legislation, effectively killing it — barring special circumstances — for the session.
His spokeswoman, Angela Meleca, said Niehaus made the decision to halt the bill in order to keep the Senate’s lame-duck focus on job creation and economic growth.
“He did not break a promise,” she said.
Niehaus is in his final weeks at the Statehouse due to term limits. He cited lingering constitutional concerns in his decision not to move the bill.
Porter and her supporters are flouting Niehaus’ short-term status, encouraging proponents of the bill to work around him and focus on the new Senate leadership that will take over in January. Those lawmakers who aren’t term-limited could face fallout the next time they run for election.
Porter declined to say Wednesday whether she had the commitment of any senators to sign the discharge petition, nor whether anyone was circulating one on behalf of her group. Yet she called getting the names “very doable.”
She said Niehaus aside, 22 senators ran on a “pro-life promise.” She also noted that she personally circulated the state’s first successful discharge petition in 1994, forcing a vote that led to the nation’s first ban on late-term abortion procedures.
“We’ve got three weeks to find 17 people with the courage to sign and say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to end abortion now,”’ she said. “That’s what they ran on, that’s what they won on, and now we’re just asking them to make good on their word.”
Niehaus’ decision to stop the bill stung backers led by Porter, who had run one of the most high-profile lobbying efforts in recent state memory to try to get the bill passed. Efforts including heart-shaped balloons, Statehouse flyovers, and teddy bears.
Porter said lawmakers can expect another lobbying push during the lame-duck session, without describing what it might look like. “It won’t be bears,” she said.
She said her group and Ohio Right to Life, the state’s largest and oldest anti-abortion group, have been able to come to a compromise on a new version of the bill presented to some lawmakers this week.
She declined to say what changes were made to the bill to bring the group around.
“Everyone is united in this new heartbeat bill,” she said.
Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis said the groups have succeeded in identifying some areas where compromise is possible, but his group does not expect to see them addressed until next session.
“It’s hard to put those points in a 20-second sound bite. These are things we’ve been working on for two years,” he said. “I believe we’ve identified common ground o this, but that’s obviously water under the bridge based on President Niehaus’ decision.”
Even if a Senate vote were forced before the Legislature adjourns in December, it is still unclear whether Republican Gov. John Kasich would sign the bill into law. Kasich says he’s consistently opposed abortion, but has been noncommittal on the measure.
Still, Porter said there’s no sense in holding back until Niehaus leaves: “I’m just going to say that the very definition of insanity is to do thing again and expect different results.”
Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.