God's politics at the Statehouse: Ohio abortion hearing goes to Sunday school
Ohio anti-aborts hauled out their big guns Tuesday (June 13) for the HB 228 show hearing at the Statehouse. It ended not with a bang but with a whimper, when House Health Committee Chair John White (R-Kettering) shut off debate after 6 hours of testimony from four panels--2 supporting and 2 opposing. The abrupt ending left about 60 witnesses on both sides, claiming they’d been promised the podium, fuming.
by Marley Greiner
July 2, 2006
HB 228, bans all abortion in the state and criminalizes anyone who performs abortions, and individuals (including husbands and parents) who transport Ohio women to other states to procure abortions. A clause in the bill theoretically protects doctors from prosecution who “unintentionally” terminate a pregnancy while trying to save the life of the woman--an exclusion that nobody seems to buy.
Cincinnati-based Life Issues Institute founder and National Right to Life Committee co-founder and past president Dr. John Willke; Ohio Restoration Project director Russell Johnson; former Ohio Right to Life Legislative Director Janet Folger; clergy, doctors, and several self-described “victims” of legal abortion were impaneled to flog the bill. Gary Dougherty, director of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of Ohio, Kellie Copeland, Director of NARAL-Pro-Choice, Ohio; Corinna Lohser, from the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, clergy, doctors, and women who have undergone legal and illegal abortions spoke in opposition. About 200 supporters for both sides filled the hearing room and over-flow seating in the statehouse atrium.
FANTASTIC VOYAGE. As the hearing opened, Committee Chair John White, in an unusual move, warned both sides that they would hear testimony they didn’t like. “Appropriate conduct” was expected: no hissing, no unsuitable body language, and no pictures were to be taken. Security guards were posted in the hearing room and atrium to discourage outbursts.
HB 228 primary sponsor Tom Brinkman (R-Cincinnati) kicked off the hearing claiming he just wanted to return the abortion debate back to the state where it belonged. “You don’t have true happiness without life” he told the committee, and then compared Roe v Wade to the Dred Scott decision. He was barely out the gate when committee members asked what would happen to women forced to continue their pregnancies if the bill became law. What kind of support would be available for them? Brinkman replied vaguely that he foresees a 3-4 year “transition” period after HB 228 becomes law. (Later, some committee members warned a plan had better be up and running before the law went active.) Brinkman said that Christian-based “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs) would need “to be involved,” though he didn’t mention the state, following precedent, would end up pouring millions of taxpayer dollars into evangelical CPC ministries. Brinkman also suggested that adoptions need to be easier for PAPs, (potential adoptive parents) who, according to him, go to other countries because they “don’t want to deal with Ohio bureaucracy.” Brinkman failed to explain how making adoption easier for adopters means support for women in coerced pregnancies. Later, an HB 228 support witness said that more maternity homes were needed so “women can keep their babies,” a peculiar notion since the historic duty of maternity homes has been to hide the pregnancies of middle class daughters and move white newborns into the adoption system.
John Willke followed Brinkman. Willke described himself as a doctor interested in “reproduction and human sexuality.” The fact is Willke hasn’t practiced medicine for years and since the early 1970s has dedicated his energy almost exclusively to eliminating abortion from the Ohio landscape. Willke created the “why can’t we love them both?” tactic that defines women who have abortions as victims without out agency, exploited by a profit-hungry abortion industry. His politics fall to the right of a good part of rank-and-file abortion opposition. He opposes gay rights, same sex marriage, comprehensive sex education, contraception, and adult adoptee access to their original birth certificates. Janet Folger considers him her mentor.
Spermatic-romantic Dr. Willke took us on a Fantastic Voyage of the female reproductive track, describing in detail the journey of sperm swimming through the uterus and penetrating an egg (which he compared to an ant piercing a basketball). He explained that upon impact, an electrical charge goes off to keep other sperm from entering the egg. “You’re all there with that one cell,” he said, “in your first house, your mother’s womb.” During the question period HB 228 opponents booed Willke when he claimed that pregnancy through rape is rare. In the afternoon session Corinna Lohser said that a little under 5% of sexual assaults--about 32,000 a year-- result in pregnancy.
Willke was followed by former missionary, Dr. Dennis Michael Sullivan, now a professor in the pre-med program at Cedarville University, who testified that humanity is conferred upon conception and does not depend on functional capacity.
Lisa Dudley, a paralegal and traveling witness for the San Antonio-based Justice Foundation’s anti-abortion Operation Outcry project followed Willke. She presented 2000 affidavits from women claiming their abortions were forced or coerced. Rep. Chris Redfern (D-Catawba Island Twn. and head of the Ohio Democratic Party) asked Dudley if she would be surprised to learn that Dr. James Leinginger, a major Justice Foundation funder, opposed contraception and condom use. Dudley acted taken aback by the question and after a pause answered “Yes.” (Leininger has been described as the “paymaster of the Republican religious right.” Molly Ivins calls him “God’s sugar daddy“).
Operation Outcry’s Elizabeth Clyne, Columbus, described her abortion at a clinic in Pensacola, Florida in the 1970s. She alleged she was manhandled by nurses and the doctor and forcibly aborted when she tried to stop the abortion mid-procedure. No one reminded Clyne that no surgery can be simply stopped once it has begun.
The first panel closed with Diane Bailey, Mansfield, who talked about her shame as a Christian when she became pregnant and had an abortion in high school.
STARS AND NAZIS. Evangelical rock star Janet Folger and the Ohio Restoration Project’s Patriot Pastor Russell Johnson brought a sense of celebrity to the second panel.
Folger, the former legislative director and lobbyist for Ohio Right to Life later headed D. James Kennedy’s Center for Reclaiming America at Coral Ridge Ministries in Fort Lauderdale. At ORTL she developed public policy, was a fixture at the statehouse, and a local media darling. She takes credit for Ohio’s “partial birth abortion” ban, the “woman’s right to know law” and other anti-abortion statutes in the state. But she left the state with one regret, she said “We didn’t finish the job.” Supporting ecrementalism was a mistake, “The time is now.”
One of the most influential, though under-publicized, evangelical women in the US today, Folger currently directs anti-abortion, pro-abstinence Faith2Action and is the author of The Criminalization of Christianity. Known for publicity stunts, her affection for Yankee Trader, and sometimes humorous approach to lobbying while at ORTL (just ask Deb Pryce ), she played it straight this time. “The opposition is on the wrong side of women, history, and science,” she testified to the committee and her fans. “NOW knows it. NARAL knows it. This is your moment in history.” Folger drew more boos than Willke when she continued, “Guess what! It turns out there are more of us than there are of them — not to mention the fact that our folks have been having children while the other side has been aborting them.” Folger is unmarried and has no children.
Equating those who do nothing about abortion with Germans who did nothing about Hitler, Folger warned, “We are responsible for what we can do on our watch….This is your watch…This is your job…Stop the killing.”
Patriot Pastor Russell Johnson voiced similar sentiments wrapping his arguments in star spangled nation building. “Our national DNA instinctively protects life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he testified. According to him, abortion is the cause of tax-base erosion. (He and Redfern went into a tangential discussion on taxes with Johnson concluding that the state tends to be confiscatory and “takes money from hard working people and gives it to liars and thieves.”)
Pushing Brinkman’s Dred Scott and Folger’s Nazis further, Johnson rammed ahead equating slavery and especially the Holocaust with abortion. He compared those who do nothing to stop abortion today to German church-goers 65 years ago whose hymns drowned out the cries of Jews shipped in cattle cars on the way to Auschwitz. Several times Chris Redfern asked Johnson if he was comparing members of the standing committee who refused to act on the issue to Germans who did nothing to stop the Holocaust. Johnson finally replied “God will hold those accountable.” During an afternoon panel, to the cheers of HB 228 opposition, Rabbi Barnett Bricker lashed out at Johnson, whom he called “an evangelical preacher,” for trivializing the Holocaust by comparing it to abortion. Departing from his submitted testimony, Brickner lectured Johnson and Folger. “For Jews, the Holocaust was a theological watershed that raises questions over the inherent nature of the human condition…There is no moral equivalency between abortion and the Holocaust. And it is theologically shallow, and morally reprehensible, to try and link the two.”
Two other panel members spoke briefly. Fr. Martin Fox, St. Boniface Parish in Piqua, said that human dignity is the premise of nearly all laws (and brought up slavery again). Rev. Edward Harvey, Lighthouse Community Church offered that “if we all loved one another our problems would be cleared up.”
WE LOVE OUR CHILDREN, TOO. The luv-fest came to an abrupt halt in the afternoon when opposition panels convened. Gary Dougherty from Planned Parenthood, Corrina Lohser from the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, Rev. Lois Powell, Chair of the Board of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and a United Church of Christ minister, and Eileen Hammar, a family practice physician in Westerville opened the afternoon session. They stressed facts and “choice” over emotion, myth and moral rectitude--a huge tactical error given the political climate downtown. Outlawing abortion will not decrease the need for abortion or stop it, they argued. Nearly all wore cluelessly cute stickers reading, “Birth Control Not Bans” and recommended the committee support the Ohio Prevention First bill that focuses on preventing unwanted pregnancy, a bill with as much conservative support as HB 228 has liberal. They presented petitions with over 3000 signatures opposed to HB 228
Dougherty, perhaps due to Folger’s comment about “pro-choicers” being busy “aborting their children” felt the need to reassure the committee that his side loves their children. He told the committee, “Laws that criminalize abortion are bad for women's health, bad medicine and bad public policy." NARAL’s Kellie Copeland, a member of the second opposition panel, added later, “Why would the state punish families?” Laurel Murphy, a Columbus public school teacher, also on the second panel, recounted the 2002 therapeutic abortion of her triplets Robert, Tyler, and Ella, after she was given hours to live due to massive bleeding. Without legal abortion she said her new baby Grace Ella would not be alive today--nor would she.
Rev. Powell discussed UCC’s policy on abortion and told her personal story of being date raped at Oberlin College in 1970. With the help of “underground” clergy she was able to get to New York for an abortion, then illegal in Ohio, which she has never regretted.
Dr. Hammar was particularly distressed that HB 228 threatened her ability to treat her patients and asked the committee, “Please, please help me help my patients.” Cleveland businessman Branislav Ugrinov related a 1970 incident when a housemate was turned away from 3 Cleveland ERs after collapsing at home from an illegal abortion. Ugrinov said he and his wife, both recently arrived from Yugoslavia where abortion was legal, were astonished that American women could not expect decent reproductive healthcare.
Corinna Lohser addressed rape. She told the committee that her agency serves 10,000-12,000 clients annually, mostly low-income youth. For many women pregnant by rape, she said, “abortion relieves pain and suffering…Rape took away their choice.”
Rabbi Barnett Brickner, Columbus, detailed the Jewish world view. “Life is sacred,” he said, but “the fetus has lesser rights.” Later, at the request of the committee he clarified, citing Old Testament passages and Rabbinical commentaries, and said, “the fetus has no rights.” His own mother, Brickner revealed, was forced to go to Japan to abort a rape pregnancy because she could not get a legal abortion at home. The rabbi said he feared that if HB 228 became law he could become a felon for following Judaic law. The bill, he said, “is a threat to religious expression.”
The most compelling narrative testimony came from, Taba Aleem, Akron, who underwent an abortion in 1968 at the hands of a BF Goodrich factory worker. “He had grease under his nails,” she recalled. She boiled his instruments--a coat hanger and rubber tubing-- in a pot on her stove. He charged her $50 and then forced her to have sex with him “to make me relax.” Later, she suffered serious infection and required emergency treatment. Anti-aborts winced.
ANGELS DANCING ON THE HEAD OF A PIN. Anti-aborts framed the issue and the language, while opposition witnesses pandered to it. No mention of the bedrock principles of the historical pro-abortion movement: self-ownership and autonomy. No critique of over-arching state intrusion into women’s wombs. Instead, opposition witnesses went defensive, spouting consumerist “choice” rhetoric--now completely co-opted by anti-aborts (“Choose Life” license plates) that legitimizes state ownership of women’s body and reproduction. You’d never know from their Hillaryesque
“abortion-legal-but-rare” testimony that 43% of US women have abortions by the age of 45 (Henry J. Kaiser Foundation Abortion Fact Sheet), making abortion an essential and normal part of women’s healthcare. This hen came to the coop when HB 228 co-sponsor Linda Reidelbach (R-Columbus) asked Eileen Hammar why women found abortion a difficult decision to make. Instead of replying that it often isn’t a horribly difficult decision, Dr. Hammar maintained an essentialist view of women, reciting an unhappy laundry list of reasons why women have abortions: poverty, diabetes, too many children already, failed birth control, not the right time, leaving intact the notion that abortion is abnormal. The only quibble seemed to be not when women would be pregnant, but only the timing of the blessed event.
HB 228 co-sponsor, Rep. Michelle Schneider (R-Madeira), tried to discredit witnesses by demanding their opinions on “partial birth abortion,” though there is no such medical term. Instead of deflecting the question as irrelevant to HB 228, witnesses defended “pba,” furnishing new sound bytes for anti-aborts to distribute. Another HB 228 co-sponsor, Rep. Keith Faber (R-Celina), repeatedly demanded to know when, in the witnesses opinion, life begins. Legislators on both side of the aisle freely spouted Bible verses, tuning the session into a Sunday School. The theologically charged day ended in the absurd moment of NARAL’s Kellie Copeland discussing her “faith” with committee members. Abortion without apology went the way of the buggy whip.
REDUX: Tom Brinkman has made no secret that HB 228 is one of many bills introduced in state legislatures nationwide to test Roe. Each bill is a little different, and it’s hoped that one of them will be the trigger to overturn Roe.
HB 228 is a fishing expedition to see how far the statehouse Cavemen can go to eliminate abortion in Ohio. The real battle lays ahead.
According to Brinkman’s legislative aide, Kara Joseph, her boss isn’t too happy with the current HB 228 draft--and neither are other anti-abortion legislators. Rep. Larry Flowers (R-Canal Winchester) has voiced concern over the lack of rape and incest exceptions saying the bill goes “too far.“ Rep. Michael Debose (D-Cleveland) told Janet Folger that the ban on interstate transportation “isn’t fair.” Others believe the ban violates the Constitution’s commerce clause. (Folger hinted that it may be dropped if a new bill is drafted.) HB 228 co-sponsor, Michelle Schneider, suggested that focus be switched to her own HB 239, which prohibits public funding of abortions if Roe is overturned. “My bill has a much better chance,“ she said. “It’s constitutional. Let’s stay with reality, shall we?” Committee Chair and longtime abortion opponent, John White, says he held the hearing only to give the bill a “rich going-over.” In fact, House Speaker Jon Husted and Republican leadership at least publicly ignored the bill from the start and said initially it wouldn‘t even get a hearing. Perhaps the Republicans are afraid of backlash from party moderates at the November polls. Or even worse. Without abortion, as some observers contend, the cow goes dry.
Denise Makura, director of Ohio Right to Life, calls the HB 228 “sloppy drafting” and until things are fixed, her organization remains “neutral.” Testifying as a non-paneled “neutral” at the close of the hearing, she complained that if the bill were passed in its present form and appealed, it could wipe out the state’s “partial birth abortion” ban, parental consent law, and other anti-abortion statutes during appeals. Kara Joseph says that Brinkman was especially concerned that under the current language women could conceivably be criminally prosecuted for undergoing an abortion, which he doesn’t want. Legislative Services, which drafted the bill, disagrees, but anti-aborts want no unintended consequences in such high stake legislation.
As of this writing no more HB 228 hearings are scheduled, according to Tasha Hamilton of the Republican Caucus staff. That could always change. The Center for Bioethical Reform-Midwest director and WRFD-AM “radio activist” talk show host, Mark Harrington, is pushing for a second hearing to accommodate witnesses turned away on Tuesday. Other groups may follow.
More importantly, Kara Joseph says that Brinkman, other legislators and anti-abortion groups, including the Christian Coalition of Ohio, Ohio Right to Life, Cincinnati Right to Life and the Center for Bioethical Reform-Midwest are working on a new bill to clean up technical problems and to clarify intent and scope. Although the sub bill won’t be ready for several months, Harrington has sent out an action alert encouraging abortion opponents to contact Committee Chair White asking him to hold hearings for Sub 228, get it out of committee, and on to the House floor.
Meanwhile, opponents worry that the bill may be used to hustle conservative votes in the November election or passed through the lame duck session should Ken Blackwell win the governorship. In any case, HB 228 will return in some form soon. And this time the Republicans won’t be fishing and “choicers” had better stop dancing with the angels.
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