Ohio governor says lawmakers should clarify six-week abortion ban now on hold by a court

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Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R) speaks during an interview on April 7, 2023.
Daniel Konik

Ohio’s abortion ban, which is now on hold by a court, bans abortion at the point fetal electrical cardiac activity can be detected. That can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, often before many patients know they are pregnant.

And the governor who signed the ban admits it’s a problem for many voters.

A Hamilton County Court ruling that put the law on hold is being appealed and it's possible the Ohio Supreme Court could reinstate it at some point in the future. But Gov. Mike DeWine is telling lawmakers they should make changes to that law now.

DeWine said he signed the so-called “heartbeat law” because he agrees with its goal of banning abortion. Still, he said many Ohioans think the law goes too far.

But he said he also thinks the reproductive rights and abortion access amendment that’s likely to be on the November ballot goes too far also. He said, if it passes, Ohio's abortion laws would look like New York and California's.

"We are not New York. We are not California," DeWine said.

DeWine said to avoid passage of that ballot issue, Ohio needs to revisit the ban and make changes to it that would make it more acceptable to the average voter.

“When the average person in the public goes in to vote on that, they are going to compare that with whatever the status quo is – whatever our current law is," DeWine said.

DeWine doesn't specify the changes he thinks should be made. But polling in recent years has shown more Ohioans favor abortion rights in cases of rape, incest or when the health or life of the mother is in jeopardy. Surveys have also shown greater support for abortion in earlier stages.

Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis doesn’t like the idea of changing the ban. He said the law, which was in effect for much of last summer, didn't have a chance to prove its impact.

“The abortion ballot language is extreme and out of touch with a majority of Ohioans. However Ohio’s ‘heartbeat’ law had only been in effect for approximately 60 days before being blocked. It’s impossible to determine the impact a new law may have in such a short period of time," Gonidakis said.

Actually, the state's ban was effective just a few hours after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Roe v. Wade unconstitutional on June 24, 2022. A federal judge allowed the ban, which was passed in 2019, to take effect. The law was in effect until September 14, when a Hamilton County Court temporarily halted it.

On October 7, the judge in that court put the ban on hold, saying it couldn't be enforced because it was too vague. The Ohio Supreme Court has been asked to put the ban in effect again. Right now in Ohio, abortion is legal in most cases up to 22 weeks into a pregnancy.

Kellie Copeland, executive director of Pro-Choice Ohio, said the ban is out of step with Ohioans because most want to be in charge of their own reproductive health care decisions.

“Patients are not asking for minor clarifications on rules; they are demanding the repeal of this draconian abortion ban. The abortion safety net must be permanently restored, without restrictions, bans, or political interference. There is no acceptable alteration to the existing law because patients would still be obstructed from having the full autonomy to determine what’s best for themselves," Copeland said.

Last summer, when the ban was in place, a 10 year old rape victim went to Indiana to get an abortion because Ohio's ban didn't have exceptions for rape or incest. Attorney General Dave Yost - who had initially said he wasn’t sure the story was true - said the ban has exceptions that would cover the girl’s case. But there have been other cases cited in court documents where pregnant Ohioans have said they couldn’t access the care they needed because doctors were afraid of running afoul of the abortion ban.

No Ohio lawmaker has stepped forward to offer language to change the ban. Meanwhile, volunteers and some paid circulators are collecting the nearly 414,000 valid petition signatures needed to put the proposed constitutional amendment, which allows abortion up to the point of viability, on the November ballot. Backers of the amendment have until July 5 to submit those petitions.

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Contact Jo Ingles at jingles@statehousenews.org.