When Janet Folger Porter moved back to Ohio in December 2010, she invited some of her closest friends to her new home in suburban Cleveland.
Her guests sipped coffee, made small talk and shared a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Meanwhile, Porter set up a white board in front of the fireplace. On it, the hostess wrote two words: “Heartbeat Bill.”
Porter’s gathering was a business meeting. And Porter, as everyone in the room knew, was in the business of banning abortion.
“This is how we can do it,” she told her guests.
Porter planned to get a law passed that would ban all abortions in Ohio after about six weeks gestation, when embryonic cardiac activity can be detected. There would be no exceptions for rape or incest.
It represented a bold challenge to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that guaranteed a right to abortion. If Porter’s law passed, it also would be one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation, an idea so radical that even Ohio Right to Life and the state’s top Republicans would spend years opposing it.
Yet today, the bill is the law of the land in Ohio. Considering the similar bans enacted in 23 other states after the Supreme Court overturned Roe in a 6-3 decision this summer, Porter’s vision is no longer extreme in the world of Republican politics – it’s the norm.
The story of how a onetime bellwether state like Ohio led a slow, determined push to steadily weaken and then nearly eliminate abortion rights is in many ways a case study for what has happened around the country. Long before the Supreme Court reversed Roe, anti-abortion activists like Porter recognized that demographic shifts and gerrymandered statehouse districts would entrench Republican majorities and allow them to push abortion restrictions that polls show are unpopular with most Americans.
The consequences came just a month after the Supreme Court’s decision, when a 10-year-old rape victim had to leave Ohio for an abortion in Indiana because her pregnancy had gone beyond the six-week limit. Nevertheless, members of Ohio’s Republican-dominated legislature have pressed forward with plans for a near-total abortion ban either this year or next.
“We are often viewed as a bellwether,” said David Pepper, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “I think we have become a bellwether in how an out-of-control statehouse can basically destroy your state.”
But 12 years ago, as Porter scribbled ideas on the white board, Ohio was a swing state that had gone for Barack Obama and would send a mainstream Republican like Rob Portman and a progressive Democrat like Sherrod Brown to the U.S. Senate. Democrats controlled most statewide offices, including governor.
That Ohio didn’t work for Porter, the founder of the right-wing Christian group Faith2Action. She was a longtime culture warrior who opposed gay marriage, promoted false claims questioning Obama’s birthplace and compared abortion to the execution of children during the Holocaust.
She was tired of watching fellow Republicans settle for measures such as licensing restrictions for clinics and waiting periods for patients – moves that made it harder, but not impossible, to get abortions.
She said in a recent interview that she’s been guided by the words of Martin Luther: “If we are not fighting where the battle is hottest, we are traitors to the cause.”
She told her houseguests it was time to take on Roe. To succeed, they’d launch what amounted to a decadeslong insurgency, a movement to change Ohio politics from the top down.
They’d have to start with their own Republican Party. Over time, the fight would become personal, as Porter and her allies adopted tactics that some said were as divisive as they were effective.
“I wanted them to see, these people are crazy. They’re not gonna quit,” Porter said. “We were not gonna give up until this bill became law.”
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