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Ohio's Year in Review 2017: Debate Over Abortion Heats Up in the Statehouse

photo of handmaids and fetus tee advocates

Ohio Department of Healthstatistics show the number of abortions in Ohio in 2016 was at an all-time low. That didn’t keep the legislature from passing more abortion legislation.

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 was the Down Syndrome abortion bill which Gov. John Kasich signed into law Friday.

NARAL ProChoice Ohio’s Jaime Miracle 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,” Miracle said.

Not the only bill on abortion restrictions signed this year
The 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 the new budget was signed, it included a provision that gave money to women’s health clinics that didn’t provide abortions.

There are other bills that came close to passage. Take, for example, one that passed the Senate that bans a common procedure used in second trimester abortions.

It 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,” he said.

Visible opposition
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 surrogates without their consent.  That 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,” she said.

photo of handmaid's tale protestors

The Senate passed that bill but the House hasn’t picked it up.

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.

Court arguments
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.

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. Because of that, they are being denied their license to provide abortions to the women in Northwest Ohio,” she said.

The consequences of voting
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. 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. We are focused on the method by which the Ohio Legislature snuck these provisions into the Ohio budget bill, without public scrutiny or debate.”

Again, Ohio Right to Life’s 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.

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment. Jo started her career in Louisville, Kentucky in the mid 80’s when she helped produce a televised presidential debate for ABC News, worked for a creative services company and served as a general assignment report for a commercial radio station. In 1989, she returned back to her native Ohio to work at the WOSU Stations in Columbus where she began a long resume in public radio.