Abortion Access In Ohio Is Quietly Disappearing

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Lawmakers in Ohio are abusing their regulatory authority to wage a war on abortion clinics, according to reproductive rights supporters in the state. The situation in the Buckeye State has been quietly unfolding over the past several months, as the national attention has largely remained focused on Texas; however, the announcement of yet another clinic closure this week highlights the fact that Ohio women are in trouble.

On Wednesday, the Lebanon Road Surgery Center — also known as “Women’s Med” — announced that it is no longer able to keep fighting state officials in court and will immediately halt its surgical abortion services. The Cincinnati-area clinic hasn’t been able to get a so-called “patient-transfer agreement” with a local hospital, a new requirement attached to a budget law approved by Gov. John Kasich (R) in 2013.

A transfer agreement is essentially a bureaucratic obstacle that doesn’t actually help ensure patients are receiving safe abortion care; the tactic fits into a larger strategy to over-regulate abortion providers that’s playing out across the country. While this particular method of forcing clinics to close isn’t specific to Ohio, state officials there have been particularly good at it.

“Women’s Med does strongly believe that the governor is targeting abortion clinics one-by-one throughout the state of Ohio to shut them down,” Thea Langsam, the lawyer representing the clinic, told reporters. “We expect there will be an influx of patients who can no longer receive services there… This is a difficult day for those of us who care about a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body.”

Ohio has had strict abortion restrictions in place for several years. But now, thanks to the 2013 budget, state officials on the health board have more power to deny clinics’ transfer agreements and yank their licenses. The Ohio Department of Health, which has been stacked with abortion opponents hand-picked by Kasich, has recently taken a much more aggressive approach to abortion clinics that fall outside the state’s strict licensing requirements.

Women’s Med is the fourth abortion facility to close since the new budget agreement was enacted last year. And according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, three of Ohio’s remaining ten clinics are in danger of following suit because their transfer agreements are in dispute. The impending closures threaten to leave the entire western portion of the state without a single abortion provider.

“Abortion access is now severely endangered for Cincinnati area women with only one provider remaining,” Val Haskell — who owns Women’s Med along with her husband, Martin — said in a statement. “This sole provider is also soon to be closed if Governor Kasich has his way.”

Abortion restrictions attached to an unrelated state budget, political influence on supposedly nonpartisan health boards, and a growing health care crisis seem like all the necessary ingredients for an explosive news story. But Ohio has largely remained out of national headlines. As the New York Times reported in October, that’s because the state has perfected an incremental strategy, “passing a web of rules designed to push the hazy boundaries of Supreme Court guidelines without flagrantly violating them.” That gradual approach doesn’t provoke the same kind of national drama as the more obviously restrictive laws in other states.

Reproductive rights supporters believe that the same strategy is continuing to play out now, with the gradual closing of clinics over the past several months. Picking off abortion providers slowly makes it harder to sue to state and block the new law.

“Unlike Texas, where all the clinics close in one fell swoop, in Ohio they’re closing one by one. So it’s difficult to make a case that this is a problem until it’s too late, because each individual clinic has to stand or fall alone,” RenĂ©e Paradis, an attorney for the ACLU, told The Huffington Post. “The ‘death by a thousand cuts’ model is what’s going to happen to the women in Ohio.”

The closure of the Haskells’ Cincinnati-area clinic is a significant victory for the anti-abortion community, which has made Martin Haskell into the poster child for so-called “partial-birth abortion.” Haskell once presented on that method of terminating a later pregnancy at a meeting of abortion providers in the 1990s, and since then, anti-choice groups have targeted him as a “notorious late term abortion doctor.” His clinics — he owns a second one in another part of Ohio — are plagued with daily protesters.

Those protesters are already celebrating this week’s news. “I am very glad that the Kasich administration is trying to protect life,” Joanne Kemmerer, a member of the Cincinnati Pro-Life Committee who wants to see all abortion clinics shuttered, told local Cincinnati outlet WKRC. “Life begins at conception. We all know that a butterfly is not growing inside the woman’s stomach or uterus.”