Pro-Life Rift in Ohio: Boon or Bust for Pro-Choice Movement?

This week, a pair of anti-abortion bills were fast-tracked for passage through the Ohio legislature, drawing attention to the surprising success of Ohio’s increasingly divided anti-choice movement. 

HB 79 bans Ohioans from purchasing health insurance that includes abortion coverage. The bill, described as “historic” by Ohio Right to Life in a recent press release, follows the incremental tack that most anti-abortion lobbyists have pushed for.

HB 125, or the “Heartbeat Bill,” on the other hand, is a more extreme piece of legislation which would outlaw abortion from the moment of discernable heartbeat (except to save the life of the mother or to prevent her from permanently losing a major bodily function).

The two serve as reminders of a rift between anti-abortion activists that took place earlier this year when Dr. John Willke and Linda Theis, key key players the influential Ohio Right To Life organization, broke away to start Ohio Pro-Life Action. Theis says the coalition was a reaction to Ohio Right to Life Director Mike Gonidakis’ “lack of leadership” on 125: “I think the biggest difference is that their approach at the Ohio Right to Life… it’s to do things that are safe, that have already been ruled constitutional. Our approach is to give the Supreme Court something new to look at.”

Theis believes that 125 will survive legal challenges. Attorney Gregory J. Roden, she says, showed her the parallels between her bill and Gonzales v. Carhart, in which a ban on so-called “partial-birth abortion” was ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court. 

“The language in the Carhart case actually… refers to the unborn in the womb as a human being from the moment of detectable heartbeat,” Theis told RD. “For the first time we’re saying that they’re actually human instead of potential human beings. There’s our opening to the US Supreme Court.”

While it’s possible the Supreme Court may rule parts of the bill unconstitutional, it’s a risk she’s willing to take: “It does have a severability clause. So a court can rule one part constitutionally and some unconstitutionally. But I think when it gets to the Supreme Court we’re just going to challenge them.”

An “Unprecedented” Split

The rivalry between supporters of the Heartbeat Bill and Ohio Right to Life’s current executive has been heating up. Theis says that Gonidakis originally seemed supportive of the idea that she and Janet Folger Porter proposed to him, but then lobbied against the bill “with the exact legislators that we had brought on as sponsors already.” Folger Porter confirmed this in an email and appeared on Capitol Square to say that Gonidakis had threatened to ‘primary’ legislators who supported the bill.

Gonidakis denies these allegations firmly, calling them “absolutely false” and “ridiculous.”

“Think about that… how ridiculous that sounds,” he says. “I have a pro-life officeholder and we’re going to run somebody against them?”

“We support our pro-life officeholders,” he says.

Meanwhile, Gonidakis says that he’s still working with Linda Theis. “We’re still united. They’re just taking a different approach. We haven’t lost anyone at Ohio Right to Life.”

He says while he wants to be cautious of strategies that cause “unintended consequences” (for example, strengthening Roe vs. Wade), he has never opposed any anti-abortion legislation.

Kate Livingston, a PhD student in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University who researches reproductive and family politics in Ohio, calls the creation of a new anti-abortion lobby by the very people who founded the original group “unprecedented.”

“In Ohio, Dr. Willke had really been synonymous with pro-life political activity,” Livingston told RD. “To see this kind of rift was incredibly surprising.”

“It will be very interesting to see who the pro-life community considers to be the real pro-lifers in Ohio now,” says Livingston. “Will this in the future constitute a split in the movement where we see constituents kind of picking incrementalism or direct action, and affiliating with Ohio Right to Life or Ohio Pro-Life Action?”

Theis doesn’t see the Heartbeat Bill as acting against the interests of incremental approaches. “There’s not one piece of pro-life legislation out there that we wouldn’t support,” she says. “It’s just that this is more aggressive.”

Theis does, however, think Gonidakis’ lobbying against the bill is harming anti-abortion activists’ goals. “Planned Parenthood, NARAL… none of those organizations had to come out and do hardly anything against this bill, because [Gonidakis] was over there doing it for them.”

More Radical than Thou

Ironically, the same group criticizing Right to Life for not supporting a more radical agenda has itself been attacked by another group for not supporting a more radical agenda. That group, Colorado-based Personhood USA along with its Ohio affiliate, seeks to amend state constitutions to make any fertilized egg a person, a law that could have far-reaching implications for the use of common contraceptives or for infertility treatment practices, according to pro-choice advocates. Dr. Patrick Johnson, a key organizer with Personhood USA, writing on the conservative website WorldNetDaily:

“The advocates of the Heartbeat Bill have proven their willingness to push one person out of the boat to try to save another. How? By way of the bill’s exceptions, its inappropriate penalties, and its counterfeit moral standard.”

Phil Burress, a supporter of the Heartbeat Bill and member of the Ohio Pro Life Action executive, addressed the criticism in an interview with RD. “This is one of the problems, is this criticism,” he says. “I don’t think Dr. Johnson… wants to network or play ball with everyone else.”

Burress also says an Ohio personhood amendment may be unnecessary since, “We only need one state to pass the personhood bill and get it before the United States Supreme Court.”

Johnson counters that it is compliance in “judicial tyranny” to draft bills under the hope that they will be ruled on favorably by the Supreme Court: “Ohio has no more obligation to obey the Supreme Court when they say ‘we have to let innocent Ohioans be killed’ any more than if the Supreme Court said ‘slavery should be legal’ or ‘we should be able to kill any children under two.’”

Incremental measures, such as the Heartbeat Bill and fetal ultrasound laws, “justify some abortions,” says Johnson. “I don’t think we need to justify abortion in the cases of maternal health.”

While the three groups continue to criticize each other over strategy, accusations of financial mismanagement on the part of Ohio Right to Life have begun to surface. Former board member Julie Busby has written a letter to the Ohio Attorney General, alleging that Gonidakis denied her access to the group’s organizational record. Busby claims the lack of cooperation on Gonidakis’ part made it impossible for her to do her job.

Phil Burress says, “it sounds like Ohio Right to Life is a two-man show.”

Gonidakis denies the allegations, arguing that Busby is no longer on the Ohio Right to Life Board and that he has denied her nothing.

Kellie Copeland, Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, finds the allegations unsurprising. She attributes them to the political battle between the two groups. “There definitely seems to be a move on their part to appeal to their base to no longer financially support Ohio Right to Life,” she says.

Theis of Pro Life Action Ohio rejects this theory, asserting that “we’re not in existence to take away Ohio Right to Life chapters’… membership.”

Pro-Life Hydra?

Is this kind of internal conflict a victory for pro-choice activists in Ohio? Not according to Copeland: “Obviously we prefer that they spend time fighting each other, instead of trying to insert politicians between Ohio women and their doctors… but the practical effect is that we’re having to fight almost… a dozen attacks on abortion access this year… What that means for pro-choice advocates like myself is that we’re having to fight on basically three fronts.”

Copeland suggests that so many groups have formed due to the increasingly politically expedient environment Ohio has become for anti-choice organizers, where pro-choice senators are outnumbered by a ratio of 2-to-1.

“It’s the strategy they disagree about, it’s not the goal,” she notes. “This is really… an indicator that in the last election, large anti-choice majorities were elected to the Ohio house and senate. People who want to outlaw abortion in our state have seen a real opportunity.”

Gonidakis believes that Ohio has had a “banner year for the pro-life movement… we’re blessed. Elections have consequences.” Copeland and Gonidakis probably don’t agree on much, but on this point they seem to be on the same page. 

According to Gonidakis, Ohio Right to Life is “part of the national strategy to overturn Roe.” He adds that the state’s high number of anti-abortion representatives and senators—not to mention Governor John Kasich—has allowed for Right to Life to pursue rigorous legislative activity. In this year alone, according to NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, at least ten anti-choice bills have been introduced.

Ultimately, Copeland is wary of trying to rank incrementalism or direct attacks as more threatening to abortion access in the state, focusing instead on the bigger picture. “Right now the kind of general wisdom is that the nine Justices on the Supreme Court would not overturn Roe vs. Wade […] but that’s not 100% given,” she warns, pointing to Justice Kennedy as a potential sway vote. “The court’s so evenly divided, right now it’s five to four presumably in our favor, that could change very quickly.”