In the gray early morning of June 24, a charter bus idled outside the Elizabeth Campbell Surgical Center in Mount Auburn waiting to take a group of Planned Parenthood supporters from Cincinnati to the state capitol building in Columbus.
About 25 people piled on board, and as the bus sped through the drizzly Ohio countryside, the mood was grim but determined. The group from Cincinnati was joining about 50 other lawmakers, health professionals and activists at the capital, gathering at the last minute to protest changes to abortion law quietly slipped into Ohio’s biennial budget. Those provisions include one that could keep the Mount Auburn clinic from providing abortions, making Cincinnati the largest metropolitan area in the country without direct access to the procedure.
GOP lawmakers and their supporters say those measures are meant to ensure the safety of clinic patients and limit abortions to those that are absolutely necessary. Opponents, including Cincinnatians on the bus to Columbus, say those restrictions are an unconstitutional attempt at taking away women’s reproductive choices.
What would happen if the clinic shut down is “anybody’s guess,” said bus rider Kate Gallion, who called the situation “dire straits.”
“Where will women go?” she asked.
Anti-abortion groups, on the other hand, have applauded the new rules. Ohio Right to Life, an organization very active in lobbying for the laws, has celebrated them as progress toward eliminating the practice entirely. The group’s president, Mike Gonidakis, called the restrictions “a strategic step into hopefully someday ending abortion.”
One of the restrictions is very troublesome for the Planned Parenthood clinic in Mount Auburn. A provision would limit the Ohio Department of Health to 60 days in considering variance requests. Under an Ohio law passed in 2013, any clinic providing abortions must have admitting privileges with a nearby hospital. A clinic can get an exception, or variance, to this rule if it has licensed physicians with admitting privileges at nearby hospitals on site.
That’s the situation at the Mount Auburn clinic: Because another recently passed Ohio law forbids publicly funded hospitals from entering into transfer agreements, the facility lost its agreement with University of Cincinnati Hospital. It has been granted variances in the past but has waited more than a year on its most recent application for variance renewal.
Under the new law, if the department does not grant a request within 60 days, the request is considered denied and a clinic must stop providing abortions. That could keep the Elizabeth Campbell Surgical Center from performing those services. Another clinic, Women’s Med in Dayton, waited nearly two years for its variance application to be approved. It was denied last week. If both clinics close, Southwestern Ohio would be without an abortion provider.
Those aren’t the only restrictions advocates are protesting. Another bill GOP state lawmakers recently passed would outlaw nearly all abortions after 20 weeks of conception. Anti-abortion activists have called that move “monumental.” The rule would make Ohio’s abortion restrictions among the strictest in the nation.
Meanwhile, a clinic in Toledo faces potential closure over another restriction put in the budget recently — a requirement that partnered admitting hospitals be located within 30 miles of clinics. The Toledo clinic’s partner hospital is 50 miles away.
Pro-life lawmakers and activists say the laws are about ensuring patient safety. But pro-choice advocates say limiting the availability of legal abortions will have the opposite effect.
“The health crisis that would entail — I don’t think Ohioans are really dialed into that yet,” NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Executive Director Kellie Copeland says of the potential closures that could result from the new laws.
Ohio had 16 clinics in 2011. Now it has just eight, with at least three more at risk. As the number of clinics has gone down, so have the number of abortions in the state, though the two sides of the argument debate why that has happened. Pro-choice advocates say increased education about and the availability of birth control, some of which is provided by groups like Planned Parenthood, has led to that drop. Pro-life lawmakers and activists, on the other hand, credit Ohio’s new laws that make abortions more difficult to obtain.
State Senator Peggy Lehner, a Republican from Kettering, near the Women’s Med clinic, touts state abortion restrictions as a means of curbing the practice.
“I was fortunate enough to work with Ohio Right to Life for the enactment of our post-viability abortion ban in 2011,” she said in testimony before the state Senate on the new restrictions. “Since passage of that legislation, abortions after 19 weeks gestation have decreased by 40 percent. While we are encouraged by this trend, there is more to be done.”
For activists, though, making it harder for women to get abortions isn’t something to celebrate, and provisions like the 60-day rule that threaten the Mount Auburn clinic could lead to a legal battle. In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that women have a constitutional right to access to abortions in the landmark Roe v. Wade case. Advocates say Ohio’s new laws could violate that right by placing an undue burden on women seeking abortions, especially low-income women without the means to travel and stay in another part of the state for multiple days.
Current Ohio law requires women to have a pre-procedure consultation with a 24-hour waiting period before having an abortion. If an entire region of the state doesn’t have access to a clinic, they say, women will have to spend money on lodging to comply with that law.
“On face value, it sounds totally unconstitutional,” says NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Communications Manager Gabriel Mann of the 60-day rule. “Not giving clinics due process is a horrible idea. It has nothing to do with patient safety.”
About 75 people, including those who took the bus to Columbus from Cincinnati, gathered in the state house to protest the new rules, writing small signs on pieces of paper to circumvent a rule prohibiting protest banners in the capitol. Representatives from Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, several Democratic lawmakers and others gathered for a brief news conference. A few pro-life protesters also gathered, silently giving pro-choice advocates thumbs-down gestures.
As she stood in the atrium of the state Capitol, Gallion called the situation “a no kidding, life-or-death battle.” She says she’s relied on Planned Parenthood facilities like the Mount Auburn clinic for years.
“Planned Parenthood has been the go-to health provider for women for decades, and it’s virtually being legislated out of existence,” she says. “That’s all services — Planned Parenthood in many places around the country is the only women’s health provider. That’s beyond reproductive health. That’s cancer screenings, sexual health, for millions of women.”
Pro-choice advocates called on Kasich to strike down the restrictions in the budget.
“He’s already established himself as an anti-abortion governor,” Mann says, “but there’s no reason to put women’s lives in jeopardy by leaving these things in the budget.”
Following the June 24 news conference at the capitol, the bus ride back to Cincinnati was somber. Riders watched on their cellphones as the state Senate voted to pass the budget, quietly discussing what might come next. Kasich signed the budget on June 30 without line-item vetoing the abortion provisions.
Planned Parenthood representatives say they’ll keep fighting to provide services, continuing to push for a variance for the Elizabeth Campbell Surgical Center. The group says it hopes the Ohio Department of Health will grant its variance in a timely manner, but says it will take the fight to the courts if necessary.
“We feel very strongly that abortion services must be available for the women who need them,” said Planned Parenthood Southwestern Ohio Spokesperson Danielle Craig in an email. “If we have to use litigation, we will.” ©