In the spring of 2011, two fetuses testified before the Ohio House of Representatives’ Health Committee. At least that’s how the spectacle was described by the anti-abortion-rights activists who had recruited two pregnant women to receive ultrasounds, live, while the representatives watched. Small dots flashing on a projection screen were described as beating hearts, and their sound was broadcast to the room—one coming through clearly, a reporter noted, the other “only faintly audible and hard to distinguish.”
A month earlier, a Republican state representative had introduced legislation to make abortion illegal as soon as fetal cardiac activity (colloquially but disingenuously described as a heartbeat) could be detected—usually around the sixth to eighth week of pregnancy, sometimes before a woman even knows she’s pregnant. The bill captured an ascendant mood: After sweeping electoral victories in 2010, Republican state lawmakers across the country put forward a sheaf of abortion-related restrictions, targeting clinics with unnecessary regulations, erecting procedural hurdles for women seeking care, and attempting to tighten the time frame in which abortion was legal. Many of these new bills were subtle, even sneaky, attempts to make abortion inaccessible, if still legal. Ohio’s legislation, on the other hand, was entirely transparent. Amounting to a near-total ban, the bill was blatantly unconstitutional, so unlikely to survive legal challenge that many establishment anti-abortion groups refused to support it.
Stephanie Craddock Sherwood, who was an organizer for Planned Parenthood at the time, remembers that the hearing struck her as a grotesque kind of joke. “It was such a complete dog and pony show,” she said recently. “I was like, ‘There’s no way this will ever pass, because it’s so ridiculous.’” Craddock Sherwood, who now directs an abortion fund in Ohio called Women Have Options, laughed at the recollection. Then she sighed gloomily.
One reason it was hard to take the bill seriously was the woman behind it, Janet Folger Porter, who takes credit for the idea for the legislation and has a long history on the Christian right’s conspiratorial fringe. Her career is littered with dubious positions and projects, from engineering a prominent antigay “conversion therapy” ad campaign in the 1990s to promoting Obama birtherism to flirting with dominionism, the idea that Christians should govern the nation according to biblical law. Her endeavors have ranged from hateful to laughable, including ReaganBook, a short-lived social networking site she created as a conservative alternative to Facebook. During the Obama administration, she warned that the government might engineer food shortages and that swine flu could be used as an excuse to put citizens in internment camps. In 2017 she acted as a spokesperson for Roy Moore, the Senate candidate from Alabama accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls.
The ultrasound hearing exemplified her performative approach to lobbying. In her attempts to push her abortion ban—which she and other supporters call a “heartbeat” bill—she sent legislators heart-shaped balloons, then teddy bears with mechanical hearts that thumped when they were squeezed. On Valentine’s Day in 2012, she sent 2,000 roses to state senators along with a note reading, “Bring this bill to a vote before the roses and babies die.”
For several years, the bill failed to get enough Republican support to pass the Ohio Senate, and Porter’s tactics became increasingly aggressive. In 2015 activists working with her organization Faith2Action picketed lawmakers’ homes. The following year, she ran unsuccessfully as a primary challenger against a Republican state senator she saw as an obstruction. She made plenty of enemies, but the bill eventually passed both chambers of the Ohio legislature as its members became increasingly conservative—only to be vetoed twice by John Kasich, the Republican governor, who was wary of the legal battle such a law would provoke.
Then Donald Trump was elected. Within two years, he appointed two conservative justices to the Supreme Court. As GOP lawmakers across the country rushed to pass abortion restrictions under the assumption that the court might now be willing to upend Roe v. Wade, Porter’s idea rapidly went from fringe to mainstream. More than half a dozen states—including Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana—passed a version of a “heartbeat” bill in 2019. The Ohio legislature approved the bill again in April, and the state’s new Republican governor, Mike DeWine, promptly signed it. The law, which has been challenged in court and hasn’t taken effect, would make it a felony for doctors to perform an abortion after detecting fetal cardiac activity, with no exceptions for rape or incest.
At the signing ceremony, DeWine surrounded himself with a number of anti-abortion advocates and lawmakers. Standing a few feet from him was Michael Gonidakis, who for a decade has been the president of Ohio Right to Life, the largest and most powerful anti-abortion group in the state. Gonidakis recently described the “heartbeat” bill as “the culmination of eight years of work,” though for most of that time his organization fought it, believing it was a strategic misstep.
Porter was not invited to the signing—a snub that did not go unnoticed by advocates on both sides. Many in the reproductive rights community saw her disinvitation as a way to gloss over the extreme origins of the bill. When I asked Gonidakis about her absence, he said merely, “I think the right people were in the room.”
Porter hosted her own victory party several weeks later, where she was lauded by other advocates and allies, including Iowa’s Representative Steve King, who gave the keynote speech. “Being disinvited to the bill signing by the governor, it stung,” she told the Associated Press. (Porter declined to make herself available for an interview and did not answer e-mailed questions.) “But I’m keeping my eye on the big picture.” She predicts her signature idea will be the “arrow” that takes down Roe. It would be a remarkable achievement for a woman once considered by many of her fellow conservatives as tactically naive—and a disaster for the millions of women who would lose rights as a result.
Porter, who keeps her shoulder-length hair blonde and often dresses for events in bright reds or blues, is a natural orator, prone to infusing her rapid, clipped speech with references to Scripture. Now 57, she dates her commitment against abortion to a presentation in high school. By college, she had become an activist, serving as president of Students for Life at Cleveland State and eventually landing a job as legislative director of Ohio Right to Life. There she shepherded the first state ban on a procedure that abortion opponents have misleadingly labeled “partial-birth abortion,” as well as a measure requiring minors to obtain parental consent. She was such an aggressive lobbyist that several legislators reportedly barred her from their offices.
Porter built a national reputation after moving to Florida, where she became the national director of the Center for Reclaiming America, a political offshoot of Coral Ridge Ministries, a media production company founded by televangelist D. James Kennedy. There she shifted her focus to anti-LGBTQ activism. In 1998, according to The New York Times, she crafted an ad campaign that ran in major newspapers and highlighted “‘former homosexuals’ who ‘overcame’ their sexual orientation with prayer and the help of ‘ex-gay ministries.’” In that article, evangelical power broker Ralph Reed described her as “an ideological entrepreneur, someone who tries to pick the hot new issues.”
By the mid-2000s, Porter was well-known in the Christian right. She had a radio talk show under the umbrella of Faith2Action, a book on the “criminalization of Christianity,” and she appeared regularly at events with leading religious-right figures like Focus on the Family’s James Dobson. In 2007 she hosted the Values Voter Debate for GOP presidential hopefuls and declared former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee to be God’s chosen candidate. In his memoirs, Huckabee cited her as one of the “prophetic voices” that helped create the “Huckaboom” that allowed him to capture Iowa and a handful of other primary states.
“There aren’t extravagances enough to praise Janet for the role she’s played in taking back America and rebuilding the conservative movement,” Phyllis Schlafly said of Porter in 2009, at a “How To Take Back America” conference held during the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency. Schlafly was one of Porter’s most significant influences, from whom she took notes about lobbying.
But during the Obama administration, Porter’s star dimmed, thanks to her increasingly unhinged claims and the fringe company she kept. In 2010 she organized a May Day rally, A Cry to God for a Nation in Distress, which was a bust. Only a few hundred people showed up, though she later insisted that thousands attended and viewership was “in the millions.” More disturbing, the event included speakers associated with the dominionist movement, whose call for a Christian theocratic state was deemed too extreme even by other members of the religious right. Two distributors of her radio show dropped it in the aftermath—and while she later tried to backpedal, the damage was done. Without its radio influence, Faith2Action “all but closed down,” wrote Kyle Mantyla of Right Wing Watch. Porter moved back to Ohio, where she launched the campaign that would resuscitate her career.
The origin story that Porter tells about her signature idea begins in 2010, at a funeral. “I just realized, ‘You know what? Life is short.’ And God put it in my heart that we need to do it and we need to do it now,” she said at a rally in Michigan this year, describing the revelation she had at a service for a former mentor. In a recent interview for the religious publication Charisma News, she recalled that she turned to a friend and pitched the idea for the “heartbeat” bill “right there at the wake.” (It wouldn’t be the last funeral Porter would use as an organizing opportunity: Porter has said she convinced Iowa representative Steve King to introduce federal “heartbeat” legislation at Schlafly’s funeral in 2016.)
Porter said she came up with the idea of using fetal cardiac activity as a threshold for an abortion ban in the 1980s, only to be told the timing wasn’t right. “The original idea was…heartbeat, brainwaves, how far back can we get with an incremental bill to protect these babies?” she explained in Charisma News. The funeral brought the idea to mind again, and she quickly settled on her approach. “Friends of mine said, ‘Yeah, I like heartbeat.’ I said, ‘I do too, let’s draft a heartbeat bill.’ And that’s what we did.” The idea played off a slogan commonly used by anti-abortion activists: “Abortion stops a beating heart.” To help turn the idea into law, Porter sought help from attorneys, including Walter Weber of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal organization founded by televangelist Pat Robertson as a religious counterpart to the ACLU.
All along, Porter has explicitly stated that the bill was meant to overturn Roe. “This is the bill that was crafted exactly for the Supreme Court. It was meant from its birth, from its conception, to be before the court,” she said in 2018. Former Ohio Republican state representative Lynn Wachtmann, who first introduced Porter’s measure in 2011, said at the time that he was introducing it “to see how far we believe we can push the U.S. Supreme Court in upholding as strong a bill as possible.”
Porter believes that what will distinguish her bill from other anti-abortion legislation in court is its purported basis in science. She claims that the detection of a heartbeat is a more precise indicator of life than viability (a fetus’s ability to survive outside the uterus), which she has called a “lousy” and “arbitrary” standard. A “fetal heartbeat,” her model legislation asserts, is “a key medical predictor that an unborn human individual will reach live birth.”
Many doctors argue that this language is misleading. While obstetricians consider fetal cardiac activity one early marker of a healthy pregnancy, that’s not the same as indicating life, whose beginning does not have a settled scientific marker. “When life begins and whether or not a pregnancy is likely to continue into a live birth are two completely separate questions that are being conflated,” said Dr. Jen Villavicencio, a Michigan-based ob-gyn and fellow with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Furthermore, despite Porter’s invocation of science, the term “heartbeat” is not accurate in early pregnancy. “The flicker that we see on an ultrasound that we colloquially call the heartbeat is really just electric activities that are firing from the cells that will eventually become a part of the heart,” Villavicencio said. “It’s not a pumping, it’s not valves opening and closing. It is the technology of the ultrasound picking up those electrical signals.”
If the term “heartbeat” is not scientifically accurate, it nonetheless has an emotional effect. “When you say the word ‘heartbeat,’ people envision a fully formed, tiny mini-baby that has everything it needs to live, which is not true,” said Ohio Representative Beth Liston, a Democrat and practicing physician who flipped a red district in the suburbs of Columbus in 2018. “The term is designed to create an image that is inaccurate, and I think that’s harmful.”
As soon as Ohio’s “heartbeat” bill was introduced in 2011, it exposed fractures in the anti-abortion movement. The divide generally fell between evangelical and more militant groups on one side and Catholic groups and institutional organizations like Right to Life on the other. For the militants, the bill was a chance to shake off the movement’s incremental strategy; for the more establishment players, it was too big a risk, the kind of frontal assault on precedent that could provoke the Supreme Court to affirm rather than eviscerate Roe. “There simply wasn’t a majority” on the court, Gonidakis said.
The split was also one of image. Porter was “mobilizing all of the other fringe folks,” said Craddock Sherwood. “She was mobilizing the people that scream in front of clinics, which oftentimes the mainstream anti-abortion movement doesn’t necessarily encourage.”
Ohio Right to Life’s opposition to the bill created internal divisions, too, and several county chapters angrily withdrew from the organization. Similar skirmishes broke out in other states over “heartbeat” bills and other radical measures like so-called personhood amendments. In 2013, North Dakota and Arkansas adopted legislation similar to Porter’s model, titled the Human Heartbeat Protection Act. Both were ultimately blocked in federal district court.
While the drama over those explicit abortion bans played out publicly, Right to Life made Ohio a laboratory for its indirect assault on legal abortion, busily ticking off its legislative agenda with the help of Kasich and other lawmakers. The state enacted a slew of restrictions that not only made abortion more difficult to access but also stigmatized the women seeking care. Doctors were forced to offer patients a view of an ultrasound; women had to contend with a new mandatory waiting period and counseling. New limits were placed on the use of medication to induce abortion. In 2016, at the same time that Kasich vetoed the “heartbeat” bill, he signed another one banning abortion after 20 weeks. More than half the state’s clinics closed.
Porter continued to push her legislation in Ohio and in other states. “She doesn’t take no for an answer. She’s the most persistent pro-life activist/lobbyist I’ve ever known,” said Mark Harrington, a longtime friend of hers and the founder of an Ohio anti-abortion group called Created Equal. “Some people might consider some of her tactics controversial, but I don’t at all,” he continued, referring to her name-and-shame approach to Republicans reluctant to support the “heartbeat” bill. “She held people to account.”
Republican Representative Candice Keller, an ally of Porter’s who directs an anti-abortion pregnancy center in southwest Ohio, said that she would often see Porter around the state house, pressing reluctant members to support her bill. “I would think, oh lord, there’s Janet, she’s got him in a corner,” Keller said.
State Senator Nickie Antonio, a Democrat first elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 2010, described Porter and her supporters as “a small group of very loud, determined people.” Antonio, who served on the health committee that deliberated numerous anti-abortion bills, recalled all the heart-shaped balloons and teddy bears that Faith2Action delivered to her office over the years. “They were definitely relentless. I’ll give them that.”
According to Antonio, the political winds shifted decisively with Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Late in 2018, Right to Life announced that it supported “a pathway forward” for the “heartbeat” bill, calling it the “next incremental approach to end abortion.” The statement continued, “With the additions of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court we believe this is the most pro-life court we have seen in generations.”
To many reproductive rights advocates, the divisions between Porter and Right to Life were superficial and self-serving. “I honestly just think she was a tool,” Craddock Sherwood said of Porter, echoing other sources. Despite the animosity between Porter and the establishment anti-abortion groups, she was useful to them as a foil, casting burdensome clinic regulations and other piecemeal restrictions in a moderate light.
While Porter’s supporters credited her with the passage of “heartbeat” bills in Ohio and elsewhere—“It wouldn’t have happened without her. That’s how vital she was,” Harrington said—others pointed out that her campaign benefited from rightward political shifts and from the incrementalism that she found so inadequate. “Many of the states adopting near-total abortion bans [in 2019] are states that have been adopting restrictions for years or decades,” said Elizabeth Nash, a senior state policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute. “So in many ways, what was left…was an abortion ban.”
Many Democratic lawmakers and advocates also see the sudden popularity of “heartbeat” bills as the result of a rigged system—specifically of gerrymandering, which over the past decade has skewed many state legislative maps in the GOP’s favor. In 2018, Ohio Republicans won roughly 50 percent of the vote in statehouse races yet captured 63 percent of the seats. That lopsided outcome was the result of redistricting conducted by Ohio Republicans after they took control of the governorship and both branches of the legislature in the 2010 election. In a lawsuit filed in 2012, Democrats alleged that Republicans holed up in a hotel room and secretly drafted the map to give themselves an advantage.
Several other states that passed “heartbeat” bans this year have been similarly affected by manipulated redistricting. Georgia, for instance, has some of the least competitive legislative districts in the country, thanks to maps that were redrawn by Republicans after the 2010 census to concentrate black voters in certain districts. While Republican Governor Brian Kemp won election with barely more than 50 percent of the vote in 2018, the GOP holds a 30-seat majority in the state house and just shy of a supermajority in the senate.
Gerrymandering encourages extreme policy-making by shifting the emphasis to primary elections, where candidates are more beholden to activist base voters. It also insulates elected officials from public backlash. According to one poll, Georgians opposed the new anti-abortion law 49 to 44 percent, yet the measure passed.
Anti-abortion voices in particular have been amplified in the race to the right. “Conservative legislators have been using abortion for years to prove their conservative bona fides, and other issues haven’t had that staying power,” said Nash. She cited anti-LGBTQ campaigns of the sort that Porter once devoted considerable attention to. “Some of the issues [the right has] used as their bread and butter to gin up their base aren’t as salient, so they keep coming back to abortion.”
To date, the main practical effect of “heartbeat” bills has been widespread confusion. “We get a lot of calls about whether or not abortion is still legal in Ohio,” said Chrisse France, the director of the Cleveland clinic Preterm, which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit that has temporarily blocked the law. “All they hear is ‘Governor DeWine signed a six-week abortion ban,’ and most people who don’t follow this don’t realize…that the ban was challenged and that it’s not in effect.”
Recently, France said, Preterm received a call from a woman who had waited until later in her pregnancy to contact the clinic because she didn’t think she would be able to get an abortion legally. “It shortened her time line for care,” France said, “and it limited her options,” because by then, the woman was past the time when she could have a medication abortion.
“We get callers all the time who are frantically asking if it’s legal for them to leave the state to get an abortion,” said Craddock Sherwood, whose abortion fund connects women with clinics and helps finance their procedures. While the law hasn’t led to a decline in the number of people seeking help from her organization, “people are more stressed about it, more frantic.”
Many people voiced frustrations with the attention captured by Porter. “She’s just a caricature, when all is said and done, of someone who has used all of this to great professional gain,” said Antonio. What advocates and health providers care about are not Porter’s theatrics but her impact on the people they serve. If the “heartbeat” bills are upheld by the courts and go into effect, it will mean a near-total ban on abortion in those states. “We’ve helped less than a handful of folks who were prior to six weeks,” Craddock Sherwood said—likely because many people don’t know they’re pregnant yet, or only recently found out.
In preparation for that day, Craddock Sherwood and other advocates are contemplating the need to transport people out of Ohio and are discussing safe, self-managed abortion and other systems of care used by communities that historically haven’t had access to legal abortion. “I think it’s important to remember that abortion has already become inaccessible” for many communities, said Craddock Sherwood. “Appalachian Ohio has never had an abortion clinic.”
This fall, Porter worked the phones. During one week in September, she said in a recent speech, she discussed her model bill with legislators in Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. She also promoted her forthcoming book, whose working title is A Heartbeat Away.
She has been particularly engaged in Michigan, where a contentious intraparty squabble over abortion bans is ongoing. While Republicans control the state legislature—with help, again, from gerrymandering—Michigan’s Democratic governor has threatened to veto any abortion restrictions sent her way. Now a group working with Porter called the Michigan Heartbeat Coalition is attempting to circumvent the governor via a law that allows petitioners who gather a certain number of voter signatures to take their bill directly to the legislature, which can then approve it with a simple majority vote. The coalition launched its signature collection effort earlier this year—to the displeasure of Right to Life of Michigan, which is trying to use the same maneuver to enact a ban on a medical procedure commonly used in second-trimester abortions.
The Republican Party’s rightward lurch has given Porter some vindication: Once too extreme for right-wing talk radio, she is now reportedly able to secure meetings with the vice president. But a real victory for her depends on whether the courts have been so thoroughly radicalized that they are ready to toss out a half century of legal precedent. If this seems unthinkable, consider what happened with the “partial-birth abortion” ban that she worked on early in her career. As Porter has pointed out, it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2000. Then the justices’ ideological balance shifted; seven years later, the court approved a ban on the procedure nationwide.