COLUMBUS, Ohio — An Ohio lawmaker on Wednesday touted the importance of the fetal heartbeat as an indicator of life as he urged a legislative panel to support a bill that would impose the nation's most stringent abortion limit.
The measure would outlaw abortions at the first detectable fetal heartbeat. That's sometimes as early as six weeks into pregnancy.
State Rep. Lynn Wachtmann, the bill's sponsor, told the Ohio Senate's health committee that doctors and nurses closely monitor patients' heartbeats and emergency responders check for pulses.
"Why, then, should we ignore this critical indicator of life when it comes to the very young?" asked Wachtmann, R-Napoleon, at the start of the more than four-hour hearing.
Opponent testimony on the measure has yet to be scheduled.
The bill drew criticism from one Democrat on the panel. State Sen. Shirley Smith of Cleveland called it "another attack on individual rights," contending the Republican-controlled Legislature has already tried to curb collective bargaining rights. The union law was recently rejected by voters.
If it's enacted into law, supporters of the so-called heartbeat bill hope to provoke a legal challenge and overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion in the United States. The ruling upheld a woman's right to an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually at 22 to 24 weeks.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio has said it would fight the heartbeat bill in court if it becomes law.
Questions about whether the bill could withstand a challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court have divided those in the state's anti-abortion community, who have had tactical disagreements over how best to quickly limit abortions.
Ohio Right to Life has remained neutral on the bill out of concern the legislation goes too far and that the high court's current justices would strike it down.
"The argument `we need to give the court the opportunity to change their minds' will likely backfire," said Stephanie Krider, the legislative affairs director for Ohio Right to Life.
Wachtmann told the panel bill has a chance. "If I felt confident that the courts would strike this down, I would not have carried this forward," he said.
Jack Willke, who founded Ohio Right to Life and the International Right to Life Federation, also told the committee members he believed the bill had a shot at overturning Roe v. Wade.
"This has scared the wits out of pro-abortion organizers," he said. "There is something almost magical about a heartbeat."
Willke has split from Ohio Right to Life to join Ohio ProLife Action, a new anti-abortion group that's pushing the heartbeat bill. The group has been urging state lawmakers to pass the proposal in a campaign-like effort that's included radio and television ads and a banner flown over the Statehouse in Columbus.
Ohio Right to Life is spearheading a coordinated effort among anti-abortion groups and their allies that's also linked to the fetal heartbeat. It's advocating bills in all 50 states that would require women to see and hear the fetal heartbeat before agreeing to an abortion, but would not ban the procedure.
Groups around the state have been dropping their affiliation with Ohio Right to Life, citing the organization's reluctance to back the heartbeat measure that would outlaw abortions. The largest chapter in Cincinnati, where the state movement was founded, has peeled away from the organization.
The GOP-led Ohio House passed the measure with a 54-44 vote in June. It's been stalled in the Senate since then. Wednesday was its first hearing before senators.
The heartbeat measure includes an exception for medical emergencies, but not in cases of rape or incest.
State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, said that while she is against abortions, she had concerns about having abortion providers determine whether a heartbeat can be heard.
Lehner said such questions over how the law would be applied "goes to the heart" of why the bill has received a less-than-enthusiastic response in the Senate.
The Senate hearing was more conventional in tone than those in the Ohio House, though just as crowded. At one House hearing, ultrasounds were performed on two women who were early in their pregnancies, so legislators could see and hear the fetal hearts.
One of the babies, whose heartbeat was heard in the House hearing, was carried into the room for senators to see.
"The House heard her heart," said Ducia Hamm, executive director of the Ashland Care Center, who oversaw the ultrasound in the House. "You get a chance to see her face and look into her eyes."
Bill Graber of Fairborn, Ohio, told the committee that he didn't want to see the state's money tied up in costly court battles defending the bill. He said lawmakers should instead focus on bringing down the state's 9 percent unemployment rate."I'm just here because I've had enough," Graber, a part-time construction worker, told reporters after the hearing. "If I was working full-time, I wouldn't be over here trying to torpedo their bill."