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Federal suit against Lebanon's abortion ban dropped, leaving law intact

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A lawsuit over an anti-abortion law in Lebanon was dismissed in a Cincinnati federal court today after attorneys with the city, the ACLU of Ohio and Democracy Forward agreed to stipulated terms.

The dismissal leaves the law largely intact, so it is still illegal for people to provide abortion-inducing medications to a pregnant woman in the city.

Lebanon City Attorney Mark Yurick said when the city ordinance was first written and passed, a process he wasn’t included in, the language was not very clear. And, it was nearly four times as long as the amended version city council passed in May. Yurick said the amended version clarified the ordinance and uses more concise language.

During the lawsuit, the National Association of Social Workers claimed the language in the original ordinance violated their rights because they interpreted it as barring them from providing care, such as counseling, to pregnant women.

Yurick said the ordinance was never intended to stifle that type of care, nor to enforce the ban outside the city. He said the amended ordinance clarified those concerns.

The law can’t be enforced against the pregnant woman, Yurick said. But anyone who provides the drugs to induce an abortion in the city could be charged.

Yurick said he doesn’t know if the city plans on investigating natural miscarriages, which sometimes require the use of abortion-inducing medications, or if people might be motivated to investigate pregnant women.

"I'm not aware that the city has any plans to do that. Are other people going to do that? I mean, I don't know," he said.

He said pregnant women can't be prosecuted under the law.

Yurick said that the city may have to revisit the ordinance in the future, depending on how the Ohio Supreme Court handles a Hamilton County case considering whether or not the state constitution protects abortion.

“If the Supreme Court of Ohio says that there is a constitutional right, for protecting a woman's right to choose to have an abortion, we would have to modify the law at that point to be consistent with the state constitution. But that case hasn't worked its way through the court system, as yet," Yurick said.

The NASW of Ohio celebrated the dismissal's stipulations, though Yurick disagrees with their assessment that the law was ever meant to criminalize the actions of social workers.

“We are proud to have defeated Lebanon's attempt to criminalize social workers for simply doing their jobs," said Danielle Smith, Executive Director of NASW Ohio. “Prior to our successful litigation, social workers across Ohio were at risk of being sent to jail not only for helping people access essential health care, but even just providing therapeutic space for clients to talk about abortion. This is a critical victory in ensuring our clients receive quality care.”

John Lewis, senior counsel for Democracy Forward, which helped the plaintiffs litigate the case, also interpreted the case as a win.

“Because of draconian abortion bans that are being enforced after Dobbs, many are having to travel outside their cities and states to access care. Our suit successfully stopped the City of Lebanon from criminalizing activities by social workers and advocates who help people access care,” Lewis said. “This is an important victory, but it is only the beginning, and we will continue to support efforts to achieve reproductive freedom for all.”

The Abortion Fund of Ohio was also a plaintiff in the suit.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. Fox joined the WOSU newsroom from the Tribune Chronicle/Vindicator in the Youngstown area, where she’d been a reporter since 2014. Contact Renee at renee.fox@wosu.org.