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Heated abortion issue returns to Ohio#039;s Legislature

Perhaps the hottest of all hot-button issues is back before state lawmakers in two bills that would further restrict access to abortion.

Rep. Michelle Schneider, a Cincinnati Republican, last week introduced a bill that would prohibit health insurance plans for public employees from paying for abortions unless the woman's life is at risk. It also would keep publicly owned clinics and hospitals from offering abortion services, unless for the same reason.

Fellow Cincinnati Republican Tom Brinkman's bill, introduced April 28, would ban all abortions. Brinkman acknowledged it likely would be struck down if it became Ohio law, but he wants to use it as a test case for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that allowed abortion nationwide.

The two bills mark the return of an issue that causes deep divisions among lawmakers and their constituents. Aside from the passage of a bill limiting the use of the abortion-inducing pill RU-486, which a judge blocked from taking effect, and a new ''Choose Life'' license plate, there have been few signs of the issue around the Statehouse.

Brinkman's bill changed that.

He said that with the court's current makeup, the 1973 ruling will stand. But Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 80, is fighting thyroid cancer and many court observers expect he will step down, although he surprised many by returning to the court full-time after treatment.

His retirement would create an opening and anti-abortion forces hope President Bush would add a like-minded judge to the court.

''The goal of my bill is to pass a law that will prove to be a test case before the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade,'' Brinkman said Friday. ''I'm not counting on it. I'm assuming there will be some turnover.''

Rep. Bill Seitz, another Cincinnati Republican and abortion foe, wonders why the state should get involved.

''The Supreme Court has not changed composition,'' he said. ''Why should we go through the trouble of being a test case and spend all that money?''

The bill has not garnered the support of all anti-abortion groups.

''We took a look at reality. The reality is we are far, far away from Roe v. Wade being overruled,'' said Denise Mackura, executive director of Ohio Right to Life.

The abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio believes Brinkman's goal might be reached, possibly not with Rehnquist's replacement but when another judge leaves the court.

''If they were to overturn Roe, then Brinkman's bill would go into immediate effect. … It would be much more restrictive than before Roe v. Wade,'' said Kellie Copeland, the group's executive director.

Schneider's bill has a much better chance at passage, both sides agree. It has 53 co-sponsors in the 99-member House. Brinkman's bill, introduced earlier and with 17 co-sponsors, has not yet been assigned to a committee.

Schneider, who wants all abortion banned, supports Brinkman, but her own bill came at the encouragement of Ohio Right to Life. One feature of the bill is that it would make favoring childbirth and adoption over abortion the public policy of the state.

''We kept hearing from women having abortions or wanting to have abortions saying it's legal so it must be moral,'' Mackura said. ''We want to bring awareness to the public and to women who are looking at abortion as an option.''

Copeland said it would punish women who were not willing sexual partners.

''What it seems to be doing is attempting to eliminate funding for rape survivors who are pregnant,'' Copeland said.

Schneider responded that the children of rape or incest victims could be adopted.

''For me, I'm a very conservative Republican. I represent a very conservative district and I believe I represent it well,'' she said. ''This bill was not even a stretch for me.''

John McCarthy is a correspondent for The Ohio Associated Press in Columbus.