CINCINNATI — The nation’s abortion debate arrived in a courtroom in Ohio on Friday, as attorneys fighting for and against extending a stay on the state’s near total ban on the procedure presented providers, medical scholars and ethicists to make their cases to a county judge. A group of Ohio abortion clinics representing the ACLU of Ohio challenged the state’s ban on abortions that occur after the detection of fetal heart activity. This was based on the violation of state constitutional guarantees of individual liberty and equal protection. It also says the law is unconstitutionally vague.
Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Christian Jenkins previously decided to pause the law through Oct. 12, after it took effect in the wake of federal abortion protections being overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. His next task is to decide whether to extend that pause throughout the course of the lawsuit, which may take years.
The testimony that he heard on Friday was very similar to the existing political and social arguments in favor and against abortion.
Lawyers for abortion clinics presented witnesses who emphasized that abortion is safe, necessary health care and that pregnant Ohioans seeking the procedure were devastated when the law was briefly imposed after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade case in June.
Dr. Steven Ralston is a University of Maryland maternal and fetal medicine physician. He stated that the limited exceptions in Ohio’s “heartbeat” law were vague and concerning for physicians who could lose their medical licenses and face felony charges.
He stated that patients are more at risk during pregnancy than when they have an abortion.
“I’ve seen many, many more patients end up in intensive care units after having a baby compared to women who have had an abortion,” Ralston said in video testimony. “In fact, I can’t even remember a time that I’ve seen a woman end up in a care unit after an abortion.”
The state’s attorneys brought witness Dr. Dennis Sullivan, a bioethics expert from Cedarville University, a private Baptist institution, who testified that human life begins at conception and that’s “scientifically not open to debate.”
He said Ohio’s law is “consistent with good medical practice” and that he views performing abortions under its limited exceptions — which include the life of the mother or risk of extensive internal organ damage — is medically ethical. Jenkins asked about fetal anomalies. The law does not provide an exception.
After being cross-examined by Jenkins, Sullivan asked a number of questions. He was particularly concerned about a belief he had expressed in testimony regarding the ethics of termination of pregnancy in situations that did not involve medical emergencies and how they affected the natural order of human life.
“My question is what allows you uniquely, or someone else uniquely, to make that judgment any better than the individual whose rights we are being asked to limit, whose autonomy we are being asked to take away?” Jenkins asked.
Sullivan responded with an example of a medical situation where a suffering woman’s autonomy might be sacrificed when she arrives at a hospital in need of life-saving care. He also cited Ohio law that limits citizens’ autonomy beyond abortion, including the ban on assisted suicide.
The challenged law was signed by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine in April 2019. It prohibits most abortions after the first detectable “fetal heartbeat.” Cardiac activity can be detected as early as six weeks into pregnancy, or before many women know they’re pregnant.
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