COLUMBUS – Ohio’s “heartbeat bill,” one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans, never took effect. 

But 1 in 10 Ohio women thought abortion was illegal in the state anyway, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

While most Ohio women, about 64%, understood abortions are legal in Ohio, another 26.2% weren’t sure and 9.8% incorrectly believed all abortions were illegal in the state, according to an eight-month review of the Ohio Survey of Women led by Ohio State University professor of epidemiology Maria Gallo.

A disproportionate number of women from certain demographics incorrectly believed abortion was illegal in Ohio: those who were younger, of lower socioeconomic status, unmarried or Black.

That’s a problem because these women already face structural barriers to accessing health care and the confusion surrounding whether abortion was legal didn’t help, Gallo said. 

“They are the people who get hardest hit by every misinformation campaign and every health disparity,” said Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio. “It’s inexcusable.”

People rally to support and oppose the "heartbeat bill" outside the Ohio House of Representatives chamber at the Ohio Statehouse on April, 10, 2019.

A fight over the heartbeat bill led to mass confusion over whether abortion was legal in Ohio.  JACKIE BORCHARDT/CINCINNATI ENQUIRER

Current Ohio law bans abortions after 20 weeks gestation. Other laws to restrict access to abortions, passed by the state’s GOP-controlled Legislature, are tied up in legal battles. Those include a ban on abortions after a diagnosis of Down syndrome and the so-called “heartbeat bill,” which would ban abortions as early as six weeks gestation.

Between October 2018 and June 2019, confusion about the legality of abortion in Ohio increased, growing from 4.5% of women believing it was illegal to 15.9%, according to the study. 

During that time, Ohio lawmakers debated and eventually passed the heartbeat bill, which would penalize doctors who perform abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected. The law has an exception to protect the life of the mother but not rape or incest. The changes were later blocked by a federal judge who issued a preliminary injunction.

The flurry of activity surrounding the bill, and the widespread media coverage of that activity, was confusing for some Ohio women, Gallo said. “It’s a confusing process if you weren’t following it very closely.” 

Ohio Right to Life backed the heartbeat bill and other restrictions on abortion during that time. Spokeswoman Allie Fraizer said the truth is her organization’s greatest asset. 

“If people think that abortion is illegal in Ohio, it hampers our ability to have conversations about how much work still needs to be done,” spokeswoman Allie Frazier said. “This is why we communicate daily with Ohioans about the status of our state’s pro-life legislation and impart with urgency the need to protect tiny babies with beating hearts from the violence of abortion.” 

Copeland contended that abortion opponents intentionally muddy the waters to confuse Ohio women. 

“One of the goals of anti-abortion groups and anti-abortion lawmakers is obviously to eliminate abortion access,” she said. “One of their stock and trade tools in that is creating confusion about the legality of abortion.”

Ultimately, Gallo said there’s a takeaway for doctors in Ohio: “Healthcare providers shouldn’t assume that their patients know that abortion remains legal.”