In 'Ohio After Roe,' I explore the state's shifting abortion landscape
Outside of an abortion clinic in Cuyahoga Falls, a protester held a hand made sign that read, in bold capital letters, "Business closing 2022."
The sign expressed the hope of many anti-abortion activists on the day the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Inside the clinic, the Northeast Ohio Women's Center, staffers were angry and anguished. Patients expressed relief that, despite the ruling, they were still able to get their abortion that day.
Some of those patients would not have been eligible for their procedures had they booked evening appointments. Hours after Roe fell, Ohio's 2019 Heartbeat Law went into effect. It bans abortion after fetal cardiac activity is detected, which is typically at six weeks of pregnancy.
Ohio's legal abortion limit went from 22 weeks to six weeks in the time it took Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost to tweet, "The Heartbeat Bill is now the law."
Within days, clinics saw their patient loads plummet. A doctor at Women's Med in Dayton said that clinic went from performing dozens of abortions a day to just three or four. The Northeast Ohio Women's Center saw abortions drop by 50%.
This is what was happening for abortion providers and the pregnant people seeking their services in the three months the Heartbeat Law was in effect. It has since been suspended pending a legal challenge.
The Heartbeat Law's strict six-week legal limit was affecting those who oppose abortion, too.
Gina Bonino, executive director of Heartbeat of Toledo, one of more than a hundred pregnancy centers in Ohio, said the six-week limit meant clients were rushing into a decision about their unplanned pregnancy, rather than slowing down and taking their time.
Ohio Right to Life's president, Mike Gonidakis, said he was worried the state was not ready to deal with an anticipated increase in pregnant women seeking help.
Criminal defense lawyers and a Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor fielded questions from abortion providers about liability, including whether receptionists could be prosecuted for "aiding and abetting" a procedure that might violate the law.
Reproductive rights advocates debated next steps: to help Ohio women get legal abortions now, or to continue working to expand reproductive rights for marginalized communities?
Meanwhile, conservative lawmakers at the Statehouse proclaimed victory and vowed to fight for a total ban.
The feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and anticipation were widespread.
"Ohio After Roe," Ideastream Public Media's one-hour audio documentary, captures the shock, panic, expectations and resolve of Ohioans regardless of their stance on abortion after the Heartbeat Law went into effect.
I originally envisioned this project as a series of interviews with women who experienced unplanned pregnancies and how they came to their decisions about how to proceed.
But after Politico published a leaked draft opinion that revealed the court's majority was going to overturn Roe, I realized the story was no longer about what was, but what will be after nearly 50 years of a federal right to an abortion was set aside.
That was, and is, the central question for states, post-Roe. What will abortion access look like, now that their legislatures get to decide? How could access change in the coming months, now that "the shackles" were off, as conservative Republican State Rep. Jena Powell said during the Ohio March for Life rally last fall? How are abortion rights advocates going to respond? How will voters? Do they even have a real say in abortion policy in Ohio? It's a state that University of Cincinnati political scientist David Niven says is one of the most gerrymandered in the nation, with district maps drawn to heavily favor Republicans in elections.
This is why I and my colleagues at Ideastream Public Media decided to explore this nuanced and controversial topic.
In "Ohio After Roe," I sought to portray peoples' deeply held beliefs and perspectives in a compassionate, thoughtful way. After decades of bitter, even violent, confrontations, those for and against abortion rights are justifiably cautious when a journalist asks for an interview or a visit to their clinic or their pregnancy center.
I am grateful for the access the staff of the Northeast Ohio Women's Center and Heartbeat of Toledo gave me. Their willingness to show me what they do and tell me why they do it puts the abortion issue squarely in the intimate spaces where women with unplanned pregnancies reach out for help. It humanizes the heated debates held on the streets and sidewalks, and in the hearing rooms of the Ohio General Assembly.
I am also deeply grateful for the women who allowed me to attend their abortions, and the clients of Heartbeat of Toledo who spoke to me about why they sought help there as they carried their babies to term.
The Heartbeat Law was blocked by a Hamilton County judge after clinics challenged its constitutionality. The case could come before an even more conservative Ohio Supreme Court this year, and many observers expect it to be affirmed.
Meanwhile, abortion rights advocates are hoping to thwart the Heartbeat Law, and future abortion restrictions, by putting a ballot measure before voters as early as this November that would enshrine reproductive rights in the Ohio Constitution.
No matter how these legal efforts turn out, Ohio's abortion landscape has shifted dramatically.
"Ohio After Roe" shows what it was like, living in what Gonidakis called a "heartbeat world."
It airs at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, and 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22 on WKSU. You can also access the digital version tomorrow morning at ideastream.org/ohioafterroe.
"The Cut" is featured in Ideastream Public Media's weekly newsletter, The Frequency Week in Review. To get The Frequency Week in Review, The Daily Frequency or any of our newsletters, sign up on Ideastream's newsletter subscription page.