A bill imposing the most stringent abortion limit in the nation has been put on hold in Ohio after backers who had defended its constitutionality for almost a year asked for a pile of last-minute language changes.
The leader of the Ohio Senate said Wednesday he was suspending hearings on the bill, which would ban abortions after the first detectable fetal heartbeat, because more than 20 proposed amendments by supporters were creating confusion.
"These eleventh hour revisions only serve to create more uncertainty about a very contentious issue," Republican Senate President Tom Niehaus of New Richmond said in a statement.
Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, called the decision a victory for abortion rights supporters. Though there is another year in the two-year legislative session for the attention-grabbing bill to re-emerge, Copeland said the suspension gives opponents more time to talk about the dangers in the bill.
"It's a victory that we weren't defeated today and we live to fight another day," she said.
The so-called heartbeat bill passed the GOP-led Ohio House in June. It had been stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate for months, until initial hearings began last week.
Niehaus did not specify how much time would be needed to weigh the supporter's revisions. But he said he could not move forward on a bill that "has so far created more confusion than consensus."
Faith2Action President Janet Folger Porter said she will hold Niehaus to his word to get a vote on the bill before the end of the year. Legislative activity for the year was expected to wrap up this week, but she said that could change.
"He suspended it today, but he's president of the Senate and when you're president of the Senate you can have a hearing tomorrow, you can have a hearing next week, you can call a session any time you want," she said. "That's the beauty of having the gavel."
Porter said the changes were "technical cleanup kind of things" that were drafted in response to feedback from Senate meetings and hearings.
"We are supportive of the bill as it came out of the House, but we're also supportive of the Senate's suggestions," she said. "That's how the legislative process works, isn't it?" She said the proposed changes were submitted last week.
The measure would outlaw abortions at the first detectable fetal heartbeat _ sometimes as early as six weeks into pregnancy.
If the bill is enacted, supporters hope to provoke a legal challenge and overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion in the United States. The ruling upheld a woman's right to an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually at 22 to 24 weeks.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio has said it would fight the heartbeat bill in court.
Questions about whether the bill could withstand a challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court have divided those in the state's anti-abortion community, who have had tactical disagreements over how best to quickly limit abortions.
Ohio Right to Life has remained neutral on the bill out of concern the legislation goes too far and that the high court's current justices would strike it down.
Niehaus cited the splintering within the anti-abortion community in his statement.
"We've now heard hours of testimony that indicate a sharp disagreement within the pro-life community over the direction of this bill, and I believe our members need additional time to weigh the arguments," he said.
The suspension of the heartbeat bill hearings came as the Senate cleared another abortion measure that would forbid patients in health exchanges set up by the federal health care overhaul from using taxpayer money to pay for abortions.
In a statement, Ohio Right to Life Society board chairman Marshal Pitchford commended Niehaus for his call to unity among anti-abortion groups.
"The historic number of pro-life measures enacted in 2011 demonstrates that both the Ohio Senate and Ohio House of Representatives stand ready to promote a culture of life in our great state," he said.