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Lawmakers have little time to decide on abortion bills

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Posted at 8:00 AM, Nov 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-23 08:00:02-05

With only a little over a month left before the lame duck session ends, Ohio lawmakers have to decide what to do with bills that would ban abortions after 20 weeks and others that decide what happens to fetal remains after an abortion.

If lawmakers don't make a decision on these bills by the end of the year, the bills are considered "dead." All legislation working through the House or Senate is killed off with each newly elected General Assembly. When the state's newly elected legislators come into office in the beginning of 2017, they'll have to restart all abortion-related bills that were previously introduced.

The current set of lawmakers only have a few weeks until that happens, and there's already been pushback from pro-choice abortion rights groups this week. 

Groups like NARAL Ohio and Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio protested at the Ohio Statehouse on Wednesday to try to raise awareness about various legislation moving through the House and Senate.

“I don’t want to see any limits at all on abortions. When an abortion gets really bad, it’s a medical decision anyway,” Louise Steiner, a protester from Cincinnati, said. 

Abortion is currently banned in Ohio once a fetus is considered "viable," or when there is the "possibility of the maintaining and nourishing of a life outside of the womb" with or without life support. Fetuses are generally considered to start to become viable between 22-24 weeks into a pregnancy, with the fetus' chance of survival increasing with each week of pregnancy.  

Licensed physicians in Ohio, usually a gynecologist, are required to start conducting "viability testing" after a woman is 20 weeks into a pregnancy, but it's not clear what specific tests are required from gynecologist or that such tests even exist.

Some of the bills in question: the “heartbeat bill,” which would ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected (around 6-7 weeks into the pregnancy), and three different bills that would require a woman to decide whether to cremate or bury a fetus after an abortion.

But pro-choice groups are paying especially close attention to SB 127, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks, because the bill has already passed the Senate and would just need to moved through the House to be potentially signed into law.

"We never really truly know what the legislature is going to do until something happens,” Amelia Hayes, Public Affairs Manager with Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio, said. “We have to be diligent in the way that we’re watching movement at the statehouse in response to anything they try to do that would affect the people that Planned Parenthood serves.”

Lawmakers haven't indicated that the “heartbeat bill,” which has passed the House and is now sitting in a Senate committee, will move to be passed into law before the end of the year, Hayes said.

That means Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice groups are focusing on halting bills such as SB 127 (which bans abortions after 20 weeks) instead.

The Ohio House Community and Family Advancement Committee, where SB 127 is currently sitting, could potentially have little opposition to becoming law due to the fact the committee and the Ohio House are controlled by Republican lawmakers, which tend to hold pro-life views.

“Well, it does come down to numbers (of votes). And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about,” said Rep. Kevin Boyce, D-Columbus, Ranking Democratic member on the Ohio House Community and Family Advancement Committee. “But when you raise the right questions and challenge the opposition on those questions, that’s all you can do.”

The committee isn’t planning to vote on and move SB 127 into the Ohio House this week, but the bill is a priority to pass before the end of the year, Rep. Tim Ginter, R-Columbiana County, who chairs the committee, said.

"I do anticipate that it will be one of our priorities, but there's still discussion on the timing of when the bill should be passed on to the House," Ginter said. 

With Ohio Republicans gaining super majorities in each the House and Senate (two-thirds of each chamber are held by Republicans) in the Nov. 8 election, Ginter sees the gains as inspiration for Republicans to push pro-life legislation, like SB 127, into law. 

The Ohio House and Senate both have their last scheduled sessions of the year on Dec. 8 to vote on legislation, and the Ohio Senate could meet as late as Dec. 28.

Liam Niemeyer is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau. You can reach him at liamnmeyer@gmail.com.