Four people drive Ohio efforts on abortion

Posted on April 19, 2012

Port Clinton News Herald, April 19, 2012 by Paul E. Kostyu

3 women drafted Ohio heartbeat bill, one doctor pushes for personhood bill

Three women dressed in pajamas at a sleepover in November 2010 used a whiteboard to draft an anti-abortion measure that split the pro-life movement, backed Republican lawmakers into a corner — and could make Ohio’s abortion laws the strictest in the nation.

A small group of people now, using everything from teddy bears to Twitter, can change laws — maybe.

If nothing else, those three women, plus a doctor in Zanesville pushing an even more restrictive measure, have transformed the abortion debate in Ohio and the nation.

The bill scrawled on the whiteboard was the so-called “heartbeat bill,” now House Bill 125.

If HB 125 becomes law, it would ban about 95 percent of abortions in Ohio by making the procedure illegal when a fetal heartbeat is detected, sometimes as early as six weeks, before women might know they’re pregnant.

It would be the “most extreme anti-abortion bill in the country,” said Gary Dougherty, state legislative director for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of Ohio.

On Tuesday, proponents of HB 125 unleashed robo-calls to thousands of homes featuring the voice of Jack Willke, of Springfield Township, the founder of the Ohio, national and international Right to Life movement.

They also published a full-page ad in the Columbus Dispatch featuring Willke’s picture and an open letter aimed at nine anti-abortion Republican lawmakers.

On the list: Senate President Tom Niehaus, R-New Richmond, and Sen. Shannon Jones, R-Springboro.

The effort is being led by Lori Viars, vice chairwoman of the Warren County Republican Party from Lebanon, firebrand Janet Porter, who hosted the pajama party at her North Royalton home, and Linda Theis, a former president of Ohio Right to Life, living in Findlay.

On a different front, Dr. Patrick Johnston, of Zanesville, is trying to ban all abortions in Ohio by collecting at least 385,245 signatures on petitions to put the so-called personhood amendment on the November ballot. The measure bans abortions after conception.

They come as Ohio’s abortion rate dropped 26.3 percent from 2000 to 2010 — its lowest level since 1998, according to data from the state Department of Health; and as a Republican-controlled state government in 2011 passed more anti-abortion laws than ever before.

But for the tiny group of activists — who have seen the heartbeat bill pass the Ohio House and the referendum clear an initial hurdle — that wasn’t enough. They might win yet.

“They can galvanize people to take real action outside social media circles,” said Elissa Yancey, an educator associate professor of journalism at the University of Cincinnati. “If you’re not attuned to the power and the passion of social media in people’s lives, then you would really be missing out.”

Personhood effort

“It’s time to end (abortion),” Porter told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

She and Johnston know and support each other, but have taken different routes in the abortion debate. While Porter signed Johnston’s petition to get a personhood amendment on the November ballot, she thinks HB 125 is the avenue more likely to be successful.

The problem Johnston has with HB 125 is it doesn’t prevent all abortions if life begins, as he believes, at conception. He said a constitutional amendment allows Ohioans, not the Legislature, to decide what state law should be. He is dissatisfied with the Ohio Senate and House.

“Abortion,” he said, “is the crisis of this generation.”

Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, based in Cleveland, countered that doctors will leave Ohio if the personhood amendment becomes law because they will not be able to treat women in most high-risk pregnancies without running afoul of the law.

In 2008, Colorado voters rejected by overwhelming numbers the first attempt in the nation to pass a personhood amendment. They did so again in 2010 and so did Mississippi voters in 2011. Johnston told the Enquirer he is undeterred by those results.

Mississippi, on the other hand, might enact heartbeat legislation copied from the Ohio plan sooner because HB 125 has stalled in the Ohio Senate since June.

Porter said she came up with the idea of using a fetal heartbeat as the standard for whether an abortion is legal while at the funeral wake of Mark Lally, a mentor in the abortion debate. At the same time, Viars had a plan where the standard occurred when a fetus sucked its thumb in the womb.

HB 125 sailed through the House and it appeared to Porter, the vocal front person for the legislative effort, Viars and Theis, the same would happen in the Senate. After all, anti-abortion Republicans dominated the Senate.

They also had John R. Kasich in the governor’s office, where he signed seven anti-abortion measures, four of them within his first state budget, in 2011. It was a record for the movement, said Copeland and Mike Giondakis, president of Ohio Right to Life.

Porter and her supporters, however, didn’t anticipate Giondakis and Ohio Right to Life withholding their support for HB 125, contending the measure could not withstand a court challenge under Roe v. Wade. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling sought to strike a balance between states’ rights to limit the procedure and a woman’s right to privacy.

The 87-year-old Willke resigned from the board of Ohio Right to Life in protest.

The Ohio Right to Life’s decision divided the anti-abortion movement and put anti-abortion lawmakers in a bind. Offending those who support HB 125 or those who think it goes too far could mean loss of campaign donations and support at the ballot box.

Porter launched a campaign in 2011 targeting anti-abortion lawmakers with phone calls, rallies, emails, letters, red roses, television ads, teddy bears, meetings, balloons, billboards, yard signs, post cards and even a plane pulling a banner above the statehouse.

Porter said the new effort — 10,000 robo-calls, 50,000 emails and the full-page ad — will ramp up the pressure even more on Ohio senators. A new television campaign and more aggressive use of social media also are in the plan, she said.

“It’s a manifesto,” Porter said. “They help us, or we work to replace them.”

In his phone message, Willke urges listeners to overwhelm the nine senators with calls and emails. He and others want action before lawmakers begin an extended summer break at the end of May through the November election.

“They’ve not seen anything yet,” the animated and energetic Porter said. “Legislators ran on pro-life. We elected them to end abortions. They’re going to have to choose life or death. We need the message to be louder and clearer.”

“Janet’s good at motivating people,” said Viars, who takes a more low-key, behind-the-scenes approach.

Viars, however, is equally unhappy with Republican lawmakers.

“People have a way of getting complacent,” she said. “If they say they’re pro-life and not supporting us, then I am incredibly disappointed. They have to show me. Get active. Bring this to the floor” of the Senate for a vote.

Jones as a target

One of those subjected to the barrage is Jones. Both Jones and Niehaus have a 100 percent anti-abortion record, Giondakis said.

Still, that record didn’t stop the postcards, emails, letters and phone calls. Jones is a member of the Senate Health, Human Services and Aging Committee, which has conducted hearings and needs to pass HB 125 before the full Senate can vote on it.

“Either there is a good reason for this lack of endorsement (of HB 125) or you are not now a pro-life supporter,” wrote Mike Carroll, president and chief executive officer of the Stolle Countryside YMCA in Lebanon, in an email to Jones on Aug. 8. “If the latter is true, you will permanently lose my support and many, many others like me.”

Supporters of HB 125 claim Jones doesn’t support the legislation and question whether she takes a pro-life stance just for political reasons. Jones called that a distortion of her record and said she wanted to hear all testimony before making a decision on her vote.

Similar campaigns were waged against other anti-abortion lawmakers, including Niehaus and Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, both of whom won awards in 2011 from Ohio Right to Life.

Correspondence obtained by the Enquirer through a public records request shows HB 125 supporters think anti-abortion Republican lawmakers such as Jones to be “on the fence, at best,” one disgruntled supporter of the legislation said.

Niehaus, who as president of the Senate controls the movement of legislation, said HB 125 will not advance unless there is a compromise between anti-abortion forces, and he’s not heard of any. Porter said there won’t be.

“The strongest heartbeat bill is the compromise,” she said.

In the age of social media, small groups, or sometimes even a single person, can rally thousands of supporters to a cause. That’s what Porter, Viars and Theis did.

“We have large email lists,” Viars said.

Those lists were connected to other lists. For Jones, it meant backers of HB 125 sent emails to their friends and posted messages on Facebook and Twitter with Jones’ telephone number. Supporters of the legislation were urged to call her and not be satisfied with leaving a message with Jones’ legislative aide. They were told to use “a title of any sort Pastor, Dr., elected official, Tea Party leader, Central Committee member, etc. etc.” to make sure Jones knew they had influence.

Posted in: Ohio