CREDIT: AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke
Following years of pressure from legislators, activists, and eventually the Ohio Department of Health, an abortion clinic in Sharonville, Ohio may finally close its doors on Friday. If that happens, Lebanon Road Surgery Center’s closure will be more than just a victory for the local anti-abortion movement. It will be celebrated nationally as a win over the doctor who changed the face of abortion provision back in the 1990s.
The clinic in dispute is owned by Dr. Martin Haskell M.D., the face of so-called “partial birth abortion.”
Dr. Haskell didn’t in fact invent partial birth abortion, which isn’t a technical medical term. But after he presented on intact D&X to a 1992 meeting of abortion providers, it became synonymous with his name.
Intact D&X, short for “intact dilation and extraction procedure,” is the process in which a fetus in the second trimester or later has its limbs and body brought in one intact piece through the cervix, before the skull is then collapsed and pulled through. It’s far safer for the patient than a typical late-term abortion procedure, and it’s also very rare. Nonetheless, it became known as “partial birth abortion” — which quickly became a successful political messaging strategy for pushing for abortion restrictions.
In a little over a decade, the country moved from the first state ban on that method of terminating a pregnancy, to an eventual federal ban, to a ruling by the Supreme Court upholding the policy as constitutional. The court allowed the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act to stand even though it doesn’t have a health exception for a pregnant person — a sea change moment that has affected the way abortion laws have been written ever since.
Closing Haskell’s clinic has happened far more quickly.
Using Ohio’s New Health Department Rules To Pick Off Clinics
There is little doubt that the Ohio Department of Health has taken an extensive interest in closing clinics one by one as a means to eliminate abortion access in the state. This environment has put Haskell’s Sharonville location into danger.
In order to receive a license, the state of Ohio requires that abortion clinics need to either have local transfer agreements, or have a doctor who has local admitting privileges. And since Republican Governor John Kasich signed the 2013 budget agreement — which anti-abortion politicians amended to allow the health department to have more power to shut down abortion providers — clinics have faced new bureaucratic obstacles. The Ohio Department of Health has taken a more aggressive approach to closing clinics that haven’t met the state’s strict licensing requirements. At this point, five of the state’s 14 clinics have either closed or had their licenses revoked. Some remain open because they’re still fighting those orders in court.
The most public of these battles has been in Toledo, Ohio, where the last clinic in the area is still fighting in the court to remain operating. Although a hospital 50 miles away in Michigan has signed a transfer agreement with the clinic, the state is refusing to allow it, saying it isn’t a safe enough option. To put this in context, the Toledo clinic hasn’t had to actually transfer a patient to a hospital in the last 12 years of its operation.
As the state is trying hard to methodically pull the licenses of every clinic it can justifiably target, officials are also leaping upon the chance to shutter one of Haskell’s two clinics in Ohio. Haskell received notification that his variance agreement was denied, his license was not being reissued, and he should prepare to shut his clinic down.
Local anti-abortion groups like Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati, as well as national groups like Operation Rescue, have long been focused on targeting Dr. Haskell’s clinics — with complaints ranging from an alleged refusal to adhere to licensure rules, to claims of “botched abortions,” to allegations of him breaking zoning ordinances with his clinic sign. And anti-abortion activists make it clear that, to them, Dr. Haskell’s past advocacy of intact D&X is as much in play as what they view as his current lack of adherence to licensing rules.
“The Women’s Medical Center is one of several abortion facilities owned by abortionist Martin Haskell, who has championed the gruesome late-term partial birth abortion procedure,” proclaimed Paula Westwood of Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati, after a medical emergency occurred at the clinic in 2012.
CREDIT: Operation Rescue
“Late-term abortionist, Martin Haskell, who owns Lebanon Road Surgery Center, has performed abortions for more than 30 years,” reported Lifenews in an article about the licensing dispute. “He is notorious for his advocacy of partial-birth abortion and is credited for popularizing the now banned and illegal procedure invented by a California abortionist.”
“There was a time that pro-life supporters believed that shutting down the notorious late-term abortionist Martin Haskell was simply not possible. Today’s ruling proves that, with God’s help, nothing is impossible,” said Operation Rescue President Troy Newman in mid-July, when the Sharonville clinic was ordered by a local magistrate to close. That ruling was stayed until this upcoming decision being handed down on August 15th.
“I’ve Always Been Kind Of A Poster Child”
In an interview with ThinkProgress, Dr. Haskell said that he’s become used to being singled out for his very public and controversial role in the abortion rights movement.
“I’ve always been kind of a poster child, if you will,” said Dr. Haskell. “I think I’ve become something of a poster child for their rhetoric simply because of the procedure itself. I’m frequently credited with having developed it, but I didn’t. Someone in California was doing it before I did it. We collaborated together to tell other doctors how to do it, since it made procedures so much safer for the patient.”
Protests at his Ohio clinics haven’t solely showed up because of his role in that abortion policy, however. According to Dr. Haskell, his clinics have long been targets for anti-abortion activists, starting with protesters who came to his buildings even before he began talking about intact D&X and evolving into the daily presence of the self-proclaimed “sidewalk counselors” today.
“We’ve had constant daily protests for I don’t know how many years at both of our clinics whenever we are seeing patients,” said Dr. Haskell. “For the most part they are peaceful. In Dayton they can sometimes be loud, because they will use megaphones or some kind of amplification. In Southwest Ohio, at least in our centers, they are not as in your face as what we’ve seen maybe 15 or 20 years ago, but the picketing is constant and every day.”
Dr. Haskell doesn’t think the efforts outside his clinics increased much after the federal “partial birth” ban was upheld, either — but that was because in Ohio, similar bans had been repeatedly proposed and worked through the circuit courts. “By the time the federal ban was upheld, things had gotten a little old,” he said. “The third ruling actually followed the federal ruling, so it became kid of moot. In fact the intensity of the rhetoric changed. It didn’t go away, but it felt like they had gotten a victory, so they were somewhat satisfied.”
What has changed, however, was the way that anti-abortion politicians had changed their tactics to become “much smarter,” as he put it. While previously, obtaining a variance agreement that allowed his clinic to remain licensed had always been “pretty routine” according to Dr. Haskell, suddenly nothing moved as smoothly. Having doctors act as back ups wasn’t a simple process anymore, and they were beginning to be targeted, too.
The ability to get admitting privileges has always been a struggle for a doctor who provides abortion care, as the safety of the procedure in essence limits the number of patients who will ever be admitted to a hospital for complications. With hospitals themselves looking to change their own requirements, that process will soon be impossible for most physicians whose care predominately involves doing abortions in a private setting.
Dr. Haskell had been dealing with the complications around obtaining admitting privileges by using back up physicians, but that got harder to pull off as doctors either had their own privileges revoked or found themselves the targets of other types of harassment.
“As soon as we file anything with the Department of Health it goes straight to the Right to Life people,” he explained. “So somebody in the Department of Health is funneling stuff to Right to Life organizations the minute they get it. They know who they are, and they will immediately make a phone call to a hospital and say, ‘You need to revoke this person’s privileges. They are a backup physician to Dr. Haskell.’”
Then the harassment follows them home. “They’ve even attempted to picket their house, just like they picket mine,” said Dr. Haskell. “A lot of physicians just won’t do it. They don’t want to put up with picketing or harassment just for agreeing to be a backup.”
Even when a provider does manage to get privileges, hospitals may change hands and those privileges are then lost under new management. That happened to Dr. Haskell himself. “The Jewish hospital has threatened to drop all of my privileges because they are now owned by a Catholic Hospital. The Catholic hospitals will sometimes do that.”
The entire concept of admitting privileges for abortion providers becomes even more problematic as clinics are shut down one by one while the process plays out in the courts. In Ohio, that means shifting the burden of care across the border and out of state, often to Michigan.
“Detroit clinics are already seeing an increase in Ohio clinics with the closure of one Toledo clinic,” noted Dr. Haskell. While Michigan clinics may be able to absorb some patients, that could become an even greater issue as Ohio Right to Life staff admit that they are working directly with Michigan Right to Life to close their clinics down, too.
A “Witch Hunt” To Close Clinics
Should Friday’s hearing finally manage to close Dr. Haskell’s Lebanon Road Surgery Center, abortion opponents won’t have completely ended the career of the man they consider to be one of the most “notorious” providers in the last few decades.
Dr. Haskell has already filed a new lawsuit against the state health department challenging the denial of his variance agreement. And his Kettering clinic — located not far from Dayton, Ohio — remains open. The Kettering location will likely assist a number of the patients who would have gone to Sharonville, as Cincinnati becomes the sole clinic in southern half of the state.
But, as the Ohio Department of Health, the Ohio and Greater Cincinnati Right to Life organizations, and the anti-abortion activists across the nation have demonstrated, their goal is to eventually close off every clinic in that state. It’s only a matter of time before health officials push harder to rescind the license from Dr. Haskell’s Kettering location as well — a move they have likely only delayed out of fear closing too many clinics too rapidly, which could lead to a court ruling that Ohio is creating an “undue burden” to accessing abortion care.
Reproductive rights advocates are angered by such obvious targeting of abortion clinics overall, and what could be viewed as a priority to seeking out Dr. Haskell’s businesses in particular. “The Kasich administration is clearly abusing their regulatory authority to close abortion providers, even when they have met every legal requirement to safely operate in Ohio,” said Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio. “This sort of behavior smacks of a witch hunt, and is not how Ohioans expect the Ohio Department of Health to operate.”
If Dr. Haskell loses that clinic as well, expect every headline from abortion opponents to announce that they put the “notorious late-term abortion doctor” out of business in Ohio. And don’t be surprised if that final clinic moves high on their list of priorities exactly for that reason.
Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker and activist, and the author of Crow After Roe: How Women's Health Is the New Separate But Equal and How to Change That. Robin's articles have appeared in Ms. Magazine, Rolling Stone, Bitch Magazine,Talking Points Memo and other publications.