Dr. John C. Willke, one of the founders of the modern anti-abortion movement, said that after a career promoting more modest restrictions, "it's time to take a bold step forward." (Andrew Spear for The New York Times)
A widening and emotional rift over legal tactics has split the anti-abortion movement, with its longtime leaders facing a Tea Party-like insurrection from many grass-roots activists who are impatient with the pace of change.
For decades, established anti-abortion leaders like National Right to Life and Catholic bishops have pushed for gradually chipping away at the edges of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, with state laws to impose limits on late-term abortions, to require women to view sonograms or to prohibit insurance coverage for the procedure.
But now many activists and evangelical Christian groups are pressing for an all-out legal assault on Roe. v. Wade in the hope -- others call it a reckless dream -- that the Supreme Court is ready to consider a radical change in the ruling.
The rift widened last month over a so-called personhood amendment in Mississippi that would have barred virtually all abortions by giving legal rights to embryos. It was voted down but is still being pursued in several states.
Now, in Ohio, a bill before the state legislature that would ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detectable, usually six to eight weeks into pregnancy, is the latest effort by activists to force a legal showdown. The so-called heartbeat bill is tearing apart the state's powerful anti-abortion forces.
Ohio Right to Life, which has been the premier lobby, and the state Catholic conference have refused to support the measure, arguing that the court is not ready for such a radical step and that it could cause a legal setback. But the idea has stirred the passions of some traditional leaders, even winning the endorsement of Dr. John C. Willke of Cincinnati, the former president of National Right to Life and one of the founders of the modern anti-abortion movement.
"I was Mr. Incremental," Dr. Willke, 87, said of his career promoting the more modest restrictions. "But after nearly 40 years of abortion on demand, it's time to take a bold step forward."
Dr. Willke, who in 1971 created what became Ohio Right to Life, called his onetime organization out of touch with the "unrestrained enthusiasm" that the heartbeat bill has unleashed and that he said is emerging in many other states.
Mark S. Gietzen, director of the Kansas Coalition for Life, called the bill "the most exciting thing that has happened in the pro-life movement since Roe v. Wade," adding that a heartbeat bill modeled on Ohio's would be introduced when the Kansas Legislature convenes in January.
Defenders of abortion rights, in turn, call banning abortions at the first sign of a heartbeat a patently unconstitutional proposal that is doomed to failure.
The refusal of Ohio Right to Life to get behind the heartbeat proposal has led to bitter dissent. In the last two weeks, six county chapters have angrily withdrawn from the organization including, on Thursday, the Cincinnati chapter, the state's oldest and largest.
"Step-by-step measures haven't stopped the killing," said Linda J. Theis, president of Ohio ProLife Action, a new group that was formed in October to press for the heartbeat bill, and that has absorbed the breakaway chapters. "It's hard to be against a bill that says that once a baby's heart is beating, you shouldn't take his life."
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SOURCE: The New York Times