ACLU Ohio Sues City of Lebanon Over Anti-Abortion Ordinance

Lebanon’s anti-abortion ordinance, passed in May 2021, deputizes individuals to report cases of abortion care within city limits.

click to enlarge ACLU Ohio Sues City of Lebanon Over Anti-Abortion Ordinance
Photo: Gayatri Malhotra, Unsplash

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio (ACLU) announced it is filing a federal lawsuit against the city of Lebanon on Tuesday, May 10, challenging the city’s ban on abortion that was passed in 2021.

The announcement comes one week after a leaked draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court indicated a majority of the court will vote to overturn the 1973 case Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion. The court is set to issue a ruling sometime in June. 

Lebanon’s anti-abortion ordinance, passed in May of last year, deputizes individuals to report cases of abortion care within city limits, making no exception for cases of rape or incest. While the city does not have an abortion provider, the law punishes those who “aid or abet” a prohibited abortion, according to the ACLU. 

The law criminalizes abortion providers and those who assist people in accessing an abortion as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Assistance includes providing advice, funds, transportation and other assistance to those seeking abortion care. A provision of the ordinance also makes the possession of "abortion-inducing drugs" illegal.

The lawsuit claims the ordinance’s language does not clearly define what it means to aid and abet.

“The term 'abortion-inducing drugs' is defined to include ‘mifepristone, misoprostol, and any drug or medication that is used to terminate the life of an unborn child.’  But it is unclear whether someone who drives a patient home from an abortion clinic with misoprostol would be considered to 'possess' misoprostol, and under what circumstances,” the complaint reads.

The complaint also alleges the term “abortion doula services” is used without a detailed definition in the ordinance, making it difficult to know what conduct is prohibited in the city.

“Not all abortion doulas provide the same services or provide them in the same way,” the complaint reads.

While Lebanon is the only city in the state to have an anti-abortion ordinance (self-described as a “sanctuary city for the unborn”), Ohio is likely to ban abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade in June. An attorney with the ACLU of Ohio said the language in Lebanon’s ban makes it illegal in several ways, including violating due process and freedom of speech.

“In the wake of the recent news of the Supreme Court's leaked decision overturning Roe v. Wade, it's all the more important to continue to defend abortion access and ensure that municipalities cannot criminalize lawful activity through vague, sweeping bans,” Jessie Hill, cooperating attorney for the ACLU of Ohio, says in a release. “The ordinance’s vagueness, coupled with its potentially sweeping breadth, render it unlawful on multiple fronts.” 

The lawsuit was filed with the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and Women Have Options – Ohio (WHO/O). Danielle Smith, NASW executive director, said in a release that the language of the ordinance prevents social workers from doing their job.

“Social workers are obligated to abide by the standards set forth in the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics and as state-licensed professionals legally required to follow the Ohio laws and rules that stipulate that social workers are to provide support to clients in alignment with what they self-determine is in their best interest. This ordinance thus asks social workers to defy their guiding principles for practice and their ethical obligations to their client or face criminal action,” Smith says.

The plaintiffs are asking the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio to declare the ban unconstitutional, to stop the city from enforcing the ban and to award the plaintiffs' attorney fees.

Editor's note: After this story's publication, CityBeat received the following statement from Jessie Hill, cooperating attorney for the ACLU of Ohio:

Lawsuits like this take a while to put together, so yes, it has been in the works for a while. But the bigger point is that this lawsuit is not dependent on whether Roe v. Wade is overruled or not. We are arguing that the Lebanon law is vague and overbroad, and it criminalizes constitutionally protected free speech, such as giving truthful information about abortion. So even if Roe is overruled and the government is permitted to criminalize "aiding and abetting" an abortion, it cannot do so in a way that is vague and impossible for ordinary people to understand and comply with. (It also can't violate the limits laid out in the Ohio Constitution on the powers of municipalities to create crimes, which this law does.) Note also that there are no geographical limitations in this vague law (section 509.09 is limited to abortions occurring in Lebanon, but section 509.10 is not), so it's not clear whether it can even apply to people helping people travel out of state for abortions.

Read the complaint below:

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio (ACLU) announced it will sue the city of Lebanon, challenging the city’s ban on abortion that was passed in 2021.

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