Health

This State’s Attempt To ‘Regulate Abortion Out Of Existence’ Is Flying Under The Radar

CREDIT: AP Photo/Alex Washburn

As the national attention is focused on Texas, where extreme abortion restrictions are about to take effect unless the Supreme Court decides to intervene within the next few days, there’s been considerably less focus on the other states mounting their own attacks on reproductive rights.

Ohio, for instance, doesn’t always garner as many headlines as Texas — partly because lawmakers there have pursued a successful incremental strategy that helps their attacks on abortion fly under the radar. Nonetheless, the Buckeye State is currently making similar attempts to restrict the procedure and shutter clinics. There, a complicated fight over a proposed budget bill threatens to have big consequences for providers and patients.

Ohio lawmakers have attached several complex provisions to the state budget that will make it more difficult to offer the abortion procedure. Pro-choice groups, including Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, have called the proposed budget amendments “apocalyptic,” and have accused the Ohio legislature of trying to “regulate abortion out of existence.” Activists are pressuring Gov. John Kasich (R) to veto those line items before the deadline on Tuesday.

“It just feels really frightening that the whim of our legislators could make legal and safe abortion inaccessible,” Roslyn Kade, an abortion provider who currently practices in southwestern Ohio, told ThinkProgress. “It’s very scary.”

This is the second round of budget negotiations that has provoked a fight over abortion. In 2013, Gov. John Kasich (R) approved a budget bill that included some of the harshest anti-abortion legislation in the country, including a provision requiring abortion clinics to have “transfer agreements” with private hospitals.

Requiring abortion doctors to enter into unnecessary partnerships with hospitals — a legislative strategy known as the “Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers,” or TRAP — is becoming increasingly popular on the state level. TRAP laws are written under the guise of patient safety, as abortion opponents argue that clinics need to be adequately regulated. In reality, however, they function as back-door abortion bans by making it too difficult for clinics to stay open.

Ohio’s TRAP law is even more stringent than most. The provision tucked into the state’s 2013 budget forbids abortion clinics from entering into transfer agreements with public institutions — which prevents them from partnering with the large teaching hospitals affiliated with state schools, like the University of Toledo. Most of the private hospitals, meanwhile, are Catholic-affiliated and won’t partner with abortion providers on religious grounds.

If clinics are unable to get a transfer agreement, they can apply for a waiver through the Ohio Department of Health, which has been stacked with several anti-abortion activists who were appointed by Kasich. The department has the power to deny clinics’ applications and shut them down. Over the past two years, since the last budget became law, this is the process through which half of the state’s abortion clinics have been forced to close.

Now, the new budget seeks to make this process even more difficult for clinics. One provision stipulates that “transfer agreements” are only valid if the hospital is within 30 miles of the clinic, narrowing the shrinking pool of options even further. Another provision ensures that applications for waivers are automatically denied after 60 days, allowing the Department of Health to simply run out the clock as an indirect method of shutting down clinics.

The clinic where Kade practices has already applied for a waiver, but it’s unclear how that process will play out. She said she’s very concerned about a potential future in which those applications will be denied after two months of inaction.

“It’s a significant issue in Southwest Ohio because all of the hospitals here are religiously affiliated and none of them will grant transfer agreements to an abortion center,” she said. “It’s more difficult for our patients and harder for them to access services because so many clinics have been forced to close.”

According to a recent Associated Press review, abortion clinics across the country are closing at a record pace in the wake of stringent TRAP laws. In terms of the areas where high number of clinics have recently been shuttered, Ohio ranks second only to Texas.

And Ohio isn’t stopping there. Aside from the proposed budget, lawmakers have also been advancing a 20-week abortion ban; the state senate approved that legislation just last week.

For years, reproductive rights groups have been warning that Ohio is becoming one of the worst states for abortion access. At the end of last week, the Plain Dealer’s editorial board also sounded the alarm: “These draconian rules aimed at closing Ohio’s abortion clinics appear to be a thinly veiled effort to get before the U.S. Supreme Court a challenge to Roe v.Wade, the case that legalized abortion,” the newspaper wrote in reference to the proposed budget bill.

However, there’s some sense that most Americans aren’t paying attention. “I think it’s going under the radar,” Kade said. “People don’t understand what the laws are designed to do.”