State Sen. Terry Johnson, R-McDermott, testifies on a new bill regarding “born alive” abortions (Photo by The Ohio Channel)
Two medical professionals in the Ohio Senate reintroduced a bill that would criminalize physician inaction in “botched abortions,” but say the bill is more about having a reporting system, something that already exists in state law.
The bill is sponsored by state Sen. Terry Johnson, R-McDermott, who currently works as a drug addiction treatment physician, and former ER doctor Sen. Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City, who still appears to work in a physicians group.
Johnson said while the bill has punitive aspects for physicians, it is primarily a measure to “provide a reporting system” for abortion procedures in which the baby is born alive after a “failed abortion,” which research shows could only happen closer to the full term of a pregnancy. Full term is considered 40 weeks gestation.
In Ohio, abortion is legal up to 20 weeks gestation.
While he said data has settled the dispute in the General Assembly last year that cases of “born alive abortions” were rare or non-existent across the country, Johnson also said the new bill was necessary to find out if it occurred in the state.
“We don’t want to overlook the fact that we would like Ohio to determine whether this actually happens in Ohio or not, and if it does, we can record it and we can take a cold, hard look at the results of that,” Johnson told the Senate Government Oversight & Reform Committee.
When asked about current law on infant death, Johnson acknowledged that federal law already makes infant homicide a criminal offense. But when asked to provide an example of occurrences in Ohio, Johnson said the state doesn’t collect that data.
“In states where they do have a reporting form and where they do pay attention to this, they can gather data and they prove that it happens,” Johnson said. “How would we know in Ohio? We don’t check it.”
State law already requires information about abortions to be reported to the Ohio Department of Health by the physician who performs the abortion, using forms that don’t include identification of the person receiving the abortion. The forms are used to create a yearly abortion report.
In compliance with current state law, physicians also have to report post-abortion complications, including the number and type of complications and the treatment for those complications, along with the gestational age for each procedure.
The 2019 state abortion report — the most recent data from the state — said more than half of all abortions in Ohio happened at less than nine weeks gestation, and 26% happened nine to 12 weeks into pregnancy.
Under the category of “failed abortions” in “post-abortion care for complications” data included in the report, 27 happened at less than nine weeks gestation, and the other 21 happened at nine to 12 weeks.
None were reported in gestation higher than 12 weeks.
Of the 356 abortions reported at 19 weeks or more gestation, only one pregnancy was found to be viable, with the majority of viability testing done through ultrasound.
The CDC considers “early preterm” birth to be less than 34 completed weeks of gestation, and a women’s health webpage for the University of Utah Health says infants are not considered to be viable until after 24 weeks gestation, with the chance of survival before 24 weeks at less than 50%.
Johnson said Senate Bill 157 is identical to Senate Bill 208, which he brought to the last General Assembly. That bill passed through the Senate but never received a committee hearing in the House before the GA ended at the end of 2020.
In his testimony along with his cosponsor, state Sen. Huffman pointed to a report from the nationwide anti-abortion organization Family Research Council, citing CDC data of 143 occurrences of live births following abortion procedures between 2003 and 2014, amounting to about 13 per year.
That report also cited a 2018 study that found the median survival time for those born after the termination of a pregnancy between 20 and 24 weeks gestation was only 32 minutes.
Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.