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Heartbeat bill passes House committee, heads to House floor despite protests

(April 9, 2019) — The GOP-controlled House is expected to approve the “Heartbeat Bill” Wednesday after weeks of testimony, dozens of proposed amendments and late changes to the controversial legislation.

The House Health Committee’s latest version of Senate Bill 23 passed 11-7 along party lines Tuesday. While the current version does not touch the core of the bill — to ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected — it does impose additional fines to physicians who perform abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detectable. It also eliminates various legal protections for physicians and encourages the use of more-sensitive medical technology to detect fetal heartbeats.

Committee Democrats proposed a slew of amendments, most of which failed along party lines. Some of the amendments involved exceptions for fetal abnormalities, African-American women, women’s mental health and religious reasons.

“If you are moved by your faith system, then you must have respect for other faith systems,” said Rep. Janine Boyd, D-Cleveland, who has consistently argued that religious standards for when life begins vary.

Committee Chairman Derek Merrin, R-Monclova, said abortion rights are not a religious issue, despite earlier saying — in response to Ravenna Democratic Rep. Randi Clites’ proposal to exempt fetuses with abnormalities — “we are all made in the image of God.”

Democrats also introduced a grouping of amendments that Merrin shot down as “not germane to the bill,” including: appropriating state funds for maternal and prenatal health, equal to the litigation costs the state is spending to defend abortion-restrictive legislation; providing transportation and child-care vouchers to mothers; reinstating funding to Planned Parenthood and other women’s clinics; teaching age-appropriate sex education in schools; and removing criminal penalties for doctors.

The Heartbeat Bill “has nothing to do with what’s good for the state of Ohio and our health,” Rep. Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, said. “If it did, guess what we’d be talking about in this committee: … reducing our infant mortality rate, our maternal mortality rate, our addiction crisis, our chronic diseases, our mental health. … This is a sham.”

Merrin stressed that Democratic members’ amendments were submitted after business hours, and therefore the Republican majority had inadequate time to prepare.

Boyd, the ranking minority member, countered, saying that several GOP amendments also were turned in late.

After initially refusing to accept additional testimony, Merrin allowed three opponents to provide oral testimony and one to submit written testimony. He told the audience that the committee already had heard hundreds of witnesses testify and said that was sufficient.

A Dispatch photographer also was not allowed to take pictures during much of the committee hearing, even though she had properly filled out the requisite form. House officials blamed a mix-up in communication.

If the measure wins approval as expected, the Senate will vote on whether to accept the House’s changes. If the Senate refuses the House’s version, the legislation will head to a conference committee.

“The women of Ohio deserve better than to be pawns in a political game,” said Gaby Garcia-Vera of Catholics for Choice, who was originally told by Merrin’s office that his testimony would not be accepted.

Aaron Baer, president of Citizens for Community Values, countered: “As Americans have watched states like New York pass radical pro-abortion legislation, Ohio is taking bold steps to defend the dignity of unborn children. The Heartbeat Bill affirms what science and common sense tell us: that unborn children are unique individuals, worthy of basic protections.”

Gov. Mike DeWine has frequently indicated he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

Asked what differentiates the Ohio bill from heartbeat bans in other states that have been overturned in the courts, DeWine said, “Well, I don’t think we can project what a future (U.S.) Supreme Court will do, particularly in regard to the fact it could take several years before a bill like this would reach the Supreme Court.”

When asked if the intent of the measure was to prompt a U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision allowing abortion, DeWine said the final language of the bill has not been determined.

“I’ve made it very clear for a long time that I’m pro-life, that I think the essential function of government is to protect the most vulnerable people among us, and that certainly includes the unborn,” DeWine said.