The debate this week over Ohio’s so-called “heartbeat” law may be just the first battle in what is expected to be an emboldened Republican party’s attempt to restrict or even outlaw abortion in 2017.
Anti-abortion forces say they are gearing up for when President-elect Donald Trump takes office on January 20 with a Republican-controlled Congress behind him.
In addition, they note, Republicans now control 33 of the 50 governorships as well as both chambers of the legislature in 32 states.
Advocates on both sides of the issue say they expect a flood of anti-abortion legislation to be introduced next year and, at some point, a direct challenge to the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
They also expect Republicans to launch campaigns to defund Planned Parenthood at both the federal and state levels.
“I think we will see another wave of pro-life legislation in 2017,” Eric Scheidler, executive director of Pro-Life Action League, told Healthline. “There is a climate of optimism among pro-life groups.”
Abortion rights groups are bracing for the onslaught and promising to fight back at the grassroots level.
“Legislators across the country are planning to use the Trump presidency to their advantage,” Gabriel Mann, communications manager for NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, told Healthline. “They probably feel emboldened now, but they were emboldened before.”
Terry O’Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), went as far as to compare abortion opponents to the white nationalists she said are coming into the Trump administration.
“We need to be very clear what is being brought into the White House next year,” O’Neill told Healthline.
The Ohio laws
On Tuesday, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed one anti-abortion law but vetoed another.
The bill the Republican governor approved is a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The law is similar to statutes in 15 other states. Two other states have been blocked by courts from enforcing similar laws.
Supporters of the late-term abortion ban say 20 weeks is when a fetus can feel pain. Opponents say that claim has never been scientifically proven.
The bill Kasich vetoed would have prevented abortions after 6 weeks of pregnancy. Supporters say that is when you can first detect a fetus’s heartbeat.
Kasich said he issued the veto because the legislation would probably have been found to be unconstitutional. Indeed, “heartbeat” laws in North Dakota and Arkansas have been struck down in recent years.
Both sides say the 6-week provision is in essence a complete ban on abortions since most women don’t know they are pregnant before then.
Beyond the restrictions, Scheidler said the “heartbeat” bill provides “a very important teaching moment.”
He said most people aren’t aware of the development of a fetus at that early stage.
“It makes it very clear at a very early age that an unborn child has a heartbeat,” Scheidler said.
He also defended both bills’ lack of an exemption for rape and incest victims.
“The unborn child is completely innocent of the crimes the father may have committed,” Scheidler said.
Abortion rights advocates, however, see the 6-week and 20-week bans as attacks on women.
“It makes criminals out of women and healthcare providers,” said O’Neill.
She said the 20-week provision would prohibit abortions for women who learn of fetal health issues in a second trimester. She also said many rape or incest victims do not decide to have abortions until that stage of pregnancy.
She said both the 20-week and 6-week bans would result in more maternal deaths as women seek illegal abortions.
“Women will have abortions. The only question is whether they will be safe,” O’Neill said.
She said that leads her to question one of the trademark monikers of the anti-abortion movement.
“Abortion opponents don’t care if women or girls live or live well,” O’Neill said. “Let’s not call these people pro-life ever again.”
What to expect in 2017
The “heartbeat” and 20-week bills won’t be the only type of anti-abortion legislation introduced next year.
Scheidler said he expects other legislation dealing with health clinic restrictions and parental involvement to be introduced, too.
He said a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade could come at a later date. He and others noted that Trump will probably need to appoint two new justices to the Supreme Court before there are five votes on the bench to overturn the abortion law.
“This is a long-term battle,” Scheidler said.
However, abortion rights advocates say this legal confrontation may come sooner rather than later.
“Some state will probably fire off a test case,” said Mann of NARAL.
Abortion opponents are also expected to intensify their efforts to cut funding for Planned Parenthood.
The nonprofit organization receives $550 million a year in federal funds. The group is prohibited from using that money for abortion services, but opponents say the federal money spent on other health programs frees up Planned Parenthood’s coffers to provide abortions.
Abortion rights advocates say the reduction of funds will cut into programs such as birth control, cancer screening, and family planning that Planned Parenthood provides.
“It’s a cold-blooded attempt to reduce women’s health services,” said Mann.
O’Neill said these anti-abortion actions are all part of the antiwomen views found in white nationalist societies.
“Racist policies go hand in glove with paternal policies,” she said. “You’re not just talking about abortion.”
Both O’Neill and Mann said abortion rights advocates will fight back by mobilizing at the local level.
Mann said the Ohio “heartbeat” law produced 37,000 emails from NARAL members to Kasich demanding he veto the bill.
“People really did take notice,” he said. “It was a very vocal, very clear pro-choice stand.”
O’Neill said the abortion rights movement will be similar to the one that produced minimum wage laws in much of the nation.
“We’ll be working community by community by community,” she said.