Ohio Senate puts end to 'heartbeat' abortion bill

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The leader of the Ohio Senate put a stop Tuesday to a bill that would have imposed the most stringent restriction on abortions in the nation.

The chamber doesn't plan to vote on the so-called "heartbeat bill" before the end of the legislative session next month, Republican Senate President Tom Niehaus said, citing concerns the resulting law might have been found to be unconstitutional.

"I want to continue our focus on jobs and the economy," Niehaus told reporters. "That's what people are concerned about."

The bill proposed banning abortions after the first fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as six weeks into pregnancy. It had fiercely divided Ohio's anti-abortion community, while energizing abortion rights proponents who protested against it.

Backers hoped the stringent nature of the bill would provoke a legal challenge with the potential to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion up until viability, usually at 22 to 24 weeks.

Ohio Right to Life, the state's largest and oldest anti-abortion group, and many state lawmakers expressed concern the limit would be unconstitutional -- jeopardizing other abortion limits in Ohio and expanding access to legal abortions.

The measure initially had stalled in both chambers as leaders sought legal advice as to whether the bill could withstand a court challenge. It passed the House in June 2011 and had remained pending in the Senate since.

Niehaus, who is leaving the Senate at the end of the year due to term limits, said a number of factors went into his decision not to bring the bill to a floor vote during the lame-duck session. He cited lingering constitutional concerns but would not elaborate on other issues he had with the measure.

Supporters had offered various versions of the proposal in recent weeks, Neihaus said. And a new draft had been brought to him as recently as Tuesday morning.

Niehaus wouldn't speculate on whether the bill would have cleared the Senate had he decided to bring it to the floor for a vote.

He said he respected the views of his Republican colleagues, who hold 23 of 33 seats in the Senate. But, he said, "Ultimately it's my decision not to move this bill in lame duck."

The heartbeat bill's demise Tuesday marked the end of one of the noisiest lobbying efforts in recent state memory.

One crowded House hearing featured what supporters called "the state's youngest legislative witness," an in utero fetus. Ultrasounds were performed at the hearing on two women who were early in their pregnancies, so legislators could see and hear the fetal hearts. People whose mothers had sought abortions that failed -- labeled "abortion survivors" -- were featured at another hearing.

Proponents delivered bouquets of red heart-shaped balloons and teddy bears to lawmakers, flew banners over the Statehouse and eventually turned to angry full-page ads in the Columbus newspaper.

Opponents also grew vocal. They rallied at the Statehouse during key votes, arguing the legislation could endanger the lives of women, forcing them to seek the procedure in unhealthy circumstances.

Janet Folger Porter, president of Ohio-based Faith2Action and the bill's champion, said she was confident the legislation would be upheld in court.

"This is the closest we have ever been to protecting babies with beating hearts," she said when it passed the House. "When this passes, it will be the most protective legislation in the nation."

Porter led a charge to line up a host of high-profile supporters. They included Cincinnati physician Jack Willke, a former president of the National Right to Life Committee and founder of the International Right to Life Federation, and Phil Burress, whose Citizens for Community Values led the charge to ban gay marriage, among others.

But Ohio Right to Life's then-executive director, Mike Gonidakis, called it "the right idea at the wrong time."

Battling negative publicity over its neutrality on the bill, his chapter was selected to launch a 50-state effort to pass informed-consent bills tied to the fetal heartbeat, requiring that pregnant women see and hear the rhythm before agreeing to an abortion.

Supporters of that effort said statistics show women exposed to the fetal heartbeat are far less likely to go through with an abortion.

State Sen. Shannon Jones, a Springboro Republican, said she thought the bill would have passed in the Senate.

"I am hopeful and confident it will come up in the next General Assembly," she said.

That's what the head of one abortion rights group feared Tuesday.

"We don't believe for a second that this threat is over -- perhaps delayed, but not over," said NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio director Kellie Copeland.

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