COLUMBUS, Ohio — After telling Gov. Mike DeWine they would see him in court, Ohio abortion providers have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn a pending law to forbid abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected — typically around six weeks.
The action filed in U.S. District Court in Columbus on Wednesday asks a judge to stay enforcement of the “heartbeat” law, scheduled to take effect July 11, and overturn it as an unconstitutional restriction on women’s rights to abortion access.
“Make no mistake, unless blocked by court, this law would ban approximately 90 percent of abortions in Ohio,” Elizabeth Watson, a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a statement. “The law of the land has been crystal clear for nearly 50 years — women have a categorical right to a pre-viability abortion.”
Supporters of the law, including the first-year Republican DeWine, conceded the law would be challenged in court, and that it serves as a “vehicle” for the U.S. Supreme Court to to revisit, and perhaps overturn, its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Abortion opponents hope two conservative justices appointed by Republican President Donald Trump could lead to reversal of the precedent.
To the applause of about 30 abortion opponents who received the ceremonial pens he used to sign the legislation, DeWine signed the “heartbeat” bill on April 11. DeWine and law supporters billed it as needed step to protect human life.
The “heartbeat” law would make a fifth-degree felony, carrying up to a year in prison, for physicians who perform an abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be found. The law carries an exception for saving the mother’s life, but does not contain exceptions for terminating pregnancies from rape and incest.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit operate surgical abortion clinics in Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo and Dayton. The ACLU and its Ohio affiliate, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Cincinnati law firm of Gerhardstein & Branch are providing their legal representation.
Iris Harvey, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio, which operates the Columbus clinic, said the suit seeks to preserve safe, legal abortion. “This near-total ban on abortion is part of a constant barrage of restrictions and unnecessary policing of women’s bodies from lawmakers,” she said in a statement.
Similar “heartbeat” laws have been struck down in court in Iowa, Kentucky, Arkansas and North Dakota, although appeals continue. Fetal-heartbeat bans also are expected to be challenged in Georgia and Mississippi.
While he signed 20 abortion restrictions into law during his two terms, former Republican Gov. John Kasich twice vetoed “heartbeat” legislation, contending it was unconstitutional and a waste of state money to defend in court.
A total of 20,893 abortions were performed in Ohio in 2017, an increase of 1 percent from 2016, but less than half of the peak in the early 1980s. Eighty-five percent of the terminated pregnancies in 2017 came at 12 weeks or earlier.
Abortion-rights supporters also went to court in February to challenge and delay a law signed by Kasich that bans the dilation-and-evacuation procedure, the most commonly used method to end second-trimester pregnancies.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Dayton by Planned Parenthood of Ohio and Women’s Med Center of Dayton argues that the law places illegal and undue burdens on women seeking abortions after 15 weeks gestation. Current law bans abortions, with exceptions for saving the mother’s life, after 20 weeks.
Abortion opponents in the GOP-dominated General Assembly are continuing their bids to impose more restrictions.
On Monday, two Republican lawmakers said they would introduce a bill that would require doctors to inform patients about an “abortion pill reversal” procedure that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecology says is not supported by medical science. It would require doctors prescribing drugs that induce abortion to provide patients with written information about a procedure they say could stop the abortion.
And last week, Rep. John Becker, R-Union Township, introduced a bill that generated controversy by proposing health insurers be required to cover a procedure to reimplant a fertilized ovum from an ectopic pregnancy into the pregnant woman’s uterus, a procedure that does not exist.