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Ohio 'Heartbeat' Bill Sponsor Clarifies Confusion

The sponsor of an Ohio bill that would impose the nation's most stringent abortion limit has taken responsibility for some confusion over proposed changes to the measure that caused hearings on the bill to be suspended last month.

A Dec. 15 letter written by state Rep. Lynn Wachtmann sheds new light on the sudden hold that was put on the divisive legislation dubbed the "heartbeat bill." The measure cleared the Ohio House in June. Backers had believed it was headed toward passage in the Senate before the holiday break.

In the letter obtained by The Associated Press, Wachtmann told the Senate's leader that "miscommunication" with his office resulted in the revisions reaching only the vice chairman of the Senate's health committee, and not the chairman who was conducting the hearings.

"I would like to take full responsibility for the confusion that has recently ensued with respect to the amendments offered for this bill, and I apologize for any inconvenience," wrote Wachtmann, a Napoleon Republican.

AP obtained a copy of his letter through a public records request.

Senate President Tom Niehaus halted hearings on the bill on the last scheduled day of the 2011 legislative session, saying lawmakers needed more time to weigh the roughly 20 amendments proposed by bill supporters. Niehaus, a New Richmond Republican, had said the "eleventh hour" changes to the bill were creating uncertainty about an already contentious issue.

The heartbeat bill would outlaw abortions at the first detectable fetal heartbeat — sometimes as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

Supporters of the Ohio measure hope to provoke a legal challenge and overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion in the United States. The ruling upheld a woman's right to an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually at 22 to 24 weeks.

Wachtmann said in an interview the purpose of his letter was to set the record straight about where the suggested amendments originated.

"My understanding was that somebody was taking the amendments over to the chairman's office, but that didn't get done," Wachtmann said Tuesday. "I'm not going to play games over who should have done it or didn't do it, so I just take responsibility for it because it's my bill."

Niehaus said Wednesday he appreciates Wachtmann's explanation, though it doesn't change his plans to have the Senate health committee review the amendments and recommend what to do next with the bill.

"The reason I suspended the hearings is that there was confusion," Niehaus told the AP. "It really didn't make any difference to me why there was confusion. The fact is there was confusion. And so I said OK, let's take a timeout, let's get it straightened out and then we can move forward from there."

The heartbeat bill had been stalled in the GOP-led Senate for months, until initial hearings got under way in the beginning of December.

The fate of the heartbeat measure remains unclear.

Niehaus said it is too early to predict when hearings would start again.

Gov. John Kasich, an abortion opponent, has not indicated whether he would sign the bill.

Wachtmann's letter also contained legal background about the revisions from David Forte, a law professor at Cleveland State University who helped write the heartbeat measure. Forte said the revisions were born out of conversations he had with senators, who he said wanted to strengthen the legislation.

Some suggested revisions would align the bill with other abortion measures and court rulings. One adjustment clarifies that a physician should use appropriate means of detecting the heartbeat, not a specific test. Physicians would be required to note the method, date and time of the test, and results on the woman's medical records.

Asked whether the office mix-up caused the Senate leader to suspend hearings, Wachtmann said, "In the end, I'm not 100 percent sure. But I wanted to clarify what happened and why it happened."