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2017 In Review: Abortion Debates Draw Fiery Protests As Ohio's Restrictions Grow

Abortion rights advocates protest the Down Syndrome ban on abortions at the Ohio Statehouse in 2017.
Julie Carr Smyth
/
Associated Press
Abortion-rights activists stand in protest on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017, in the Ohio Senate chamber in Columbus, after passage of a bill banning abortions in cases of a Down syndrome diagnosis.

Ohio Department of Health statistics show the number of abortions in Ohio was at an all-time low in 2016, but that didn’t keep the legislature from passing more abortion legislation this year.

Ohio Right to Life is perhaps the most powerful lobby group at the Statehouse these days. The Republican-dominated legislature has passed nearly two dozen bills that restricts abortions or funding for them, the latest being the Down syndrome abortion bill that Gov. John Kasich signed into law Friday, just before the holiday break.

The bill, HB 214, subjects doctors who perform abortions in such cases to criminal penalties, and the potential loss of their medical licenses. Pregnant women would face no criminal liability.

Jaime Miracle of NARAL ProChoice Ohio isn’t surprised Kasich signed the bill into law, and she’s not happy about it.

“This bill is exploiting families who are facing raising a child with Down syndrome for political gain, to really say, ‘You know, we are really going to use your family and not help your family.’ This bill does absolutely nothing to help families raising loved ones with Down syndrome.”

Visible Opposition

The Down syndrome bill marks Kasich’s 20th action restricting abortion rights since taking office, but it’s not the only one he’s signed in 2017. Earlier this year, when he signed the state’s new two-year budget into law, it included a provision that gave money to women’s health clinics that didn’t provide abortions.

Meanwhile, other bills came close to passage. Take, for example, one that passed the Senate in June that bans “dilation and extraction,” a common procedure used in second trimester abortions.

SB 145 was hailed by its backers, like lobbyist Barry Sheets with Principled Policy Consulting.

“Ohio needs to go further and intercede to keep this barbaric and inhumane practice from continuing in our state,” Sheets said.

Abortion protesters at the Ohio Statehouse.
Credit Jo Ingles / Statehouse News Bureau

On the other side, women dressed in costumes from the popular TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale” packed a committee room during the bill’s hearing.  That series featured women who are forced by the government to act as pregnancy surrogates without their consent. The “Handmaid’s Tale” effort was spearheaded by Stephanie Craddock Sherwood.

“Restrictions that force them to delay abortion care have a disproportionate impact, especially on low-income women, women of color, and young women,” Sherwood said.

The Senate passed that bill along party lines – with all Republicans voting in favor – but the House hasn’t picked it up yet. When it does, it’s expected to pass the House and be signed by Kasich.

Ohio has half the number of abortion clinics it had in 2010 when Republicans won the governor's office and majorities in the Statehouse and the Supreme Court.

Abortion Clinics In Court

In September, the Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments on a case that could determine whether the only abortion clinic in Toledo is forced to shut down.

The question the court is considering is whether a state law passed in 2013 is constitutional. It said an abortion clinic needs a transfer agreement with a local hospital like an eye clinic or plastic surgery center would have.

But lawmakers also mandated no public hospital can enter into such an agreement with a clinic that provides abortions.

abortion_rights_supporters_protest_outside_ohio_right_to_life_offices__credit_jo_ingles_.jpg
Credit Jo Ingles / Statehouse Bureau
Abortion rights supporters outside Ohio Supreme Court building.

Jennifer Branch, who represents the Toledo clinic, says that means women there are being denied their constitutional right to abortion.

“In Toledo, none of them would step forward to enter into a contract with this provider,” Branch said. “Because of that, they are being denied their license to provide abortions to the women in Northwest Ohio.”

Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, says the restrictions in question are constitutional, and he says it’s important to remember lawmakers are doing the will of voters who elected them.

“What our legislature has done is a clear example of elections have consequences. If you elect a pro-life legislature and a pro-life governor, you’re going to get pro-life laws,” Gonidakis said. “We are at our lowest level in our state’s history. We went from 16 abortion clinics. We are at seven now. Hopefully, we will drop it two more if we can get the Supreme Court to rule in our favor.”

That’s not the only abortion case the state’s high court heard this year. Another involves a Cleveland abortion clinic that questioned the process for passing these restrictions as part of a budget proposal. Attorney Jessie Hill argued it violated the state’s single subject rule.

“If that’s what the legislature wants to do if the Ohio General Assembly wants to pass these bills as stand-alone bills, it is entitled to do that. That is not our argument,” Hill said. “We are focused on the method by which the Ohio Legislature snuck these provisions into the Ohio budget bill, without public scrutiny or debate.”

Gondakis makes this prediction if the court rules in Preterm of Cleveland’s favor:

“If they strike it down, it will be on the governor’s desk by the end of the year," he said.

The court has yet to make decisions on those cases though, they might do that soon.