Cincinnati might soon be Ground Zero in an unconventional effort to potentially restrict access to abortions on a neighborhood-byneighborhood basis. A member of a Catholic order is lobbying city officials to change Cincinnati’s zoning laws and allow the creation of “life peace zones” aimed at prohibiting certain types of activities.
Under the proposal, individual neighborhoods and business districts could ask the city for special overlay zoning designed to “strengthen family values” and offer “greater protection of human life peacefully developing in the mother’s womb from conception to natural death,” according to a petition that’s being circulated by Brother Steven Gerard Sidlovsky of the St. Anthony Secular Franciscan Order.
For the past six weeks, Sidlovsky has made presentations about the proposal to various neighborhood groups hoping to develop grassroots support for the concept. He’s also talked to Cincinnati City Council members.
Councilman Chris Monzel has asked the city’s Law Department to draft a proposed ordinance for council review. Monzel, a Republican, wants the issue to come before city council for discussion by late fall, with a goal of making a decision by year’s end. “Issues involving the sanctity of life cause a lot of consternation in neighborhoods,” Sidlovsky says. “Many people are troubled by life-ending medical procedures and believe it can negatively impact the unique character of their neighborhoods. This would create a new local, constitutionally acceptable method that will give a judge a new way to look at this issue (if a lawsuit is filed to challenge the zoning restriction).”
Critics, however, say the wording and intent of the proposal is being kept intentionally vague by advocates so that it could prohibit not only abortion clinics in certain neighborhoods but also any type of facility that offers birth control and family planning services.
“The biggest issue I have with this is nowhere in it does it define abortion,” says Becki Brenner, Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio’s president and CEO. “Many of these organizations define abortion to include contraceptive devices.”
Like many communities across the nation, abortion is a hot button issue in Cincinnati — especially in its predominantly Catholic West Side neighborhoods.
The issue flared again this summer when it was announced that Planned Parenthood would close a clinic on Glenway Avenue in Green Township so it could move into a larger space less than three miles away on Ferguson Road in Price Hill. Some residents complained because the new site was located within a few blocks of three high schools, including Elder and Seton parochial schools. Although the clinic doesn’t offer any surgical procedures and is limited to family planning services — including providing contraceptives and diagnosing and treating sexually transmitted diseases — critics said the clinic violated the prevailing values in the neighborhood such as Catholic prohibitions against birth control.
Facing a hotly contested reelection challenge, U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, a conservative Republican, has aired TV commercials opposing the clinic’s move, stating it would harm the “moral fabric of the West Side.” Sidlovsky says his effort to create the new zoning restrictions isn’t related to the clinic’s move. “This was (begun) well before it, but it could influence what happens there,” he says. Media publicity about the clinic move began in May, and Sidlovsky didn’t begin his petition canvassing until Aug. 12. The general idea, he says, was formed earlier.
Documents show Sidlovsky first wrote a letter to Councilwoman Laketa Cole in February. Sidlovsky has collected about 375 signatures so far. He wants to have 500 by month’s end and 700-plus by late October, when the issue could come up for debate before city council.
Brenner believes the controversy over the clinic’s move is misguided. More than 90 percent of the roughly 4,200 people served annually by the West Side clinic are over age 18. “This is all a reflection of the clinic opening, and they don’t do abortions,” Brenner says. “That’s where this push comes from. It’s not just about a surgical procedure but all family planning services.”
In fact, Sidlovsky asked that CityBeat not mention the word “abortion” at all when writing about his proposal. “I would rather you not say the ‘A word.’ It’s polarizing,” he says. “This (proposal) could also include euthanasia. Some people don’t want any animal research done in their neighborhoods. I have to be honest and say I am mostly concerned with the sanctity of life. Using the ‘A word’ causes people to be argumentative rather than sharing.”
The actual scope of what would be prohibited in the proposed zones could be decided by city council based on resident input, Sidlovsky adds. Brenner counters that Sidlovsky and other advocates want to keep the proposal’s purpose vague to win broader support.
“Depending on what all is involved, it changes the discussion and level of support,” she says. Monzel believes it’s his duty as an elected official to consider Sidlovsky’s idea. “He’s a constituent and I listened to what he had to say,” Monzel says. “I found it intriguing. I’m definitely not in support of opening up abortion clinics in our city. This is a potential for communities, of their own will, to try to prevent them.”
A longtime abortion opponent, Monzel successfully pushed a few years ago to remove abortion as a covered procedure under the insurance plan for City Hall workers. He’s uncertain if there’s enough support on the nine-member city council to pass the ordinance but notes that five members have opposed abortion in the past, giving him hope. Besides Monzel, those members include Republican Leslie Ghiz, Charterite Chris Bortz and Democrats John Cranley and Cecil Thomas.
A legal opinion issued quietly in March by city staffers seems to throw cold water on the concept. “The city of Cleveland has been challenged twice on municipal code regulations that restricted abortion services in zoning districts where other medical services were allowed,” City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. wrote in a memo to council.
In one Cleveland case, “the court held that an ordinance that interferes with a woman’s fundamental right to an abortion cannot withstand a constitutional challenge simply because it is geographically limited in scope,” Dohoney wrote. In the other case, “the court held that Cleveland had no legitimate interest in shielding members of the community from constitutionally protected activities which they find offensive on personal, moral or even religious grounds.”
Even if council passed the law, each neighborhood that wanted to implement a zone would have to make the request and go before council for a decision, Monzel adds. “It’s not anything that’s hidden,” he says. “It’s being discussed right out in the open. … There are still many layers of approval and appeal. It would be a very transparent and open process.”
Before the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, abortion was a matter decided at the state level, and most states chose to prohibit the medical procedure outright.
But the high court’s decision deemed abortion a fundamental right under the Constitution, creating a “right of privacy” based on the 14th Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, along with the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people.
As Justice Harry Blackmun wrote at the time, the intent of either amendment ensures that the rights are “broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.”
Long after other controversial 1970s issues like Watergate and the Vietnam War have faded into history books, the 35-yearold court ruling still reverberates across the nation, serving as the frontline in an often bitter culture war. Many conservatives have argued that the Supreme Court misinterpreted the Constitution and overstepped its role of judicial review, usurping an issue that should be decided by elected legislators rather than appointed judges.