There’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that, as states have passed increasingly harsh restrictions limiting access to abortion, women’s health clinics are closing at a record pace. The latest data point confirming this trend comes out of Ohio — a state that’s incredibly hostile to reproductive rights, but that often manages to slip under the radar thanks to a successful legislative strategy.
According to records obtained by the Associated Press, the number of abortion providers in the Buckeye State has shrunk by half over the past four years. There were 16 providers in the state in 2011; since then, seven clinics have reduced their services or closed their doors altogether. An eighth clinic — the only abortion provider left in Toledo — is fighting to stay open, but remains at the mercy of court proceedings.
Both supporters and opponents of reproductive rights agree that new laws targeting abortion have played a direct role in the clinic closures.
In 2013, Ohio pushed through a package of stringent abortion restrictions by attaching them to an unrelated budget bill. At the time, the anti-abortion groups in the state celebrated the passage of the legislation as “historic.” Among other things, that law includes a provision requiring abortion doctors to enter into unnecessary partnerships with local hospitals — an increasingly popular legislative strategy known as the Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP — that’s making it difficult for providers to stay in business.
TRAP laws are framed under the guise of protecting patient safety. Abortion opponents say that requiring abortion clinics to make partnerships with local hospitals, for instance, is a common-sense way to ensure that patients who experience serious complications will be able to seek treatment in an ER. In practice, however, these laws often function as a back-door abortion ban by making it too complicated and difficult for clinics to remain operating.
Abortion is already a safe and highly regulated medical procedure. Less than 0.05 percent of abortion patients ever need to go to the hospital in the first place. And even if something does go wrong and a patient needs emergency care, there’s no need to have a specific agreement with a certain hospital in order to get them admitted; that’s not how emergency rooms work. Under federal law, ER doctors are already required to treat sick patients no matter where they came from.
“These laws have all been about creating these false hurdles for clinics to have to jump through in order to provide safe, legal abortion care to their patients,” Kellie Copeland, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, told the Associated Press.
Thanks to Texas’ high-profile battle over its own TRAP law, which has forced 17 of its 40 clinics to shut down, the Lone Star State has recently become somewhat of a symbol for what happens when states attempt to shut down abortion clinics. But reproductive rights groups have long argued that, amid national headlines about Texas’ sweeping attacks on abortion access, Americans should also be paying attention to Ohio. The new AP report provides some evidence to back up those claims: The pace of closures puts Ohio right behind Texas as the two states experiment with increasingly stringent laws.
The Buckeye State serves as a testing ground for some of the most restrictive abortion policies in the country. In 2013, the New York Times reported that Ohio “has become a laboratory for what anti-abortion leaders call the incremental strategy,” which involves passing a web of abortion restrictions that impede women’s access to the procedure yet don’t directly violate the protections under Roe v. Wade.
In fact, Ohio’s TRAP law is even more stringent than most. Abortion clinics are required to partner with hospitals within a 30 minute radius, but they’re not allowed to be public hospitals, which puts large institutions like the University of Toledo out of the running.
But Ohio has managed to stay out of the national headlines because, unlike the situation in Texas, abortion clinics aren’t being shuttered in one fell swoop. The state health department has gone after clinics one by one as they struggle to comply with the new transfer agreement requirements. Copeland has previously referred to the process as “a regulatory witch hunt.” Her group has been fighting to obtain public records from the Ohio Department of Health to see whether leading anti-abortion groups are wielding too much influence over state officials.
Abortion opponents, meanwhile, have a different explanation for what’s going on in Ohio. The president of Ohio Right to Life, Mike Gonidakis, acknowledges that his group’s lobbying strategies have been very successful. But he also believes that fewer women are opting to end their pregnancies. “Our society’s changing. More and more women are choosing life,” he said.