Ohio's anti-choice nightmare: How a purple state is pioneering how to shutter clinics

Red states across America are blocking women's health -- by following the lead of one state that might surprise you

Published September 15, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Tony Dejak)
(AP/Tony Dejak)

People may not always think of Ohio as a place where trends start. But sadly, the state has been on the cutting edge in one arena: politically motivated, deceptive attempts to restrict access to abortion in the name of safety.

Last month, one of only two abortion clinics in Cincinnati announced it would suspend surgical services, and the last one standing might fall for the same reason: politically motivated persecution of abortion clinics. This, along with other threatened closures, would leave the western half of the state, home to more than 350,000 women, with essentially no access to safe, legal abortion.

Politicians in the state pioneered the approach, which now threatens to force abortion clinics across the country to close. More than a decade ago, the state enacted a rule that required many medical providers to have a written transfer agreement with a local hospital, but it also allowed providers to get permission to have an agreement with a backup doctor instead. For years, the Women’s Med Center continued to operate with backup doctors with no problems.

But then in 2011, newly elected Gov. John Kasich told the health department to start treating abortion clinics differently when they applied for that permission – a process that led to today’s closure. As if requiring special agreements weren’t enough, extreme legislators doubled down in 2013. They passed a new law that banned public hospitals from making transfer agreements with abortion providers – and only abortion providers.

The result was exactly what these politicians wanted. For the first time this year, the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) refused to grant Women’s Med Center permission to use backup doctors, and the other clinic in Cincinnati lost its transfer agreement with a local public hospital because of the law.

Even that move wasn’t enough for Kasich. The head of ODH, Dr. Ted Wymyslo, resigned shortly afterward, and news reports made it clear that he was forced out because of his reluctance to go after abortion clinics.

Dr. Wymyslo was replaced with a politician with no medical credentials, who was granted the “Friend of Life Award” by United Conservatives of Ohio. This shouldn’t be surprising. Gov. Kasich has a history of appointing anti-choicers to key positions: The head of Ohio Right to Life is now on Ohio’s medical board.

The motivations of politicians in Ohio – and in other states like AlabamaWisconsinTexasMississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma and North Dakota that have passed similar laws – are clear, and they have nothing to do with making women safer. Instead, these laws are designed to shut down clinics.

We know this for a whole bunch of reasons: State regulators charged with protecting women’s health – like the two-decade ODH veteran who resigned in protest because abortion clinics were losing their license for political reasons, or the Virginia health commissioner who resigned over that state’s restrictive regulations, or the head of the Alabama Department of Health who testified that that state’s law was unnecessary– think they’re useless.

So do leading medical organizations. The American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have said there’s no reason for these types of  laws and warned that they actually put women at risk by forcing quality healthcare providers like the Women’s Med Center to close.

Given that the medical experts roundly disagree with these laws, it’s clear they’re motivated not by protecting women, but by politics and paternalism. For example, Gov. Phil Bryant, who signed Mississippi’s law, said of the state’s last abortion clinic, “My goal, of course, is to shut it down.”  And Ohio Right to Life bragged that the 2013 law was written to shut down clinics.

Sadly, Ohio’s strategy is working. In Texas, medically unnecessary regulations for abortion providers have shuttered clinics across the state; Mississippi’s last abortion clinic is open today only because of a federal court order. This approach also threatens to force three out of five clinics to shut down in Alabama and to close Wisconsin’s largest abortion provider.

The grim irony of these laws is that although their supporters claim they’re acting out of concern for women, they put women at risk. But by shutting down providers, they limit access to safe and legal abortion and endanger women’s health. Those who are genuinely concerned about women’s safety – the AMA, ACOG and public health officials like Dr. Wymyslo – recognize that fact.

Let’s hope that judges and legislators start to listen to the doctors and recognize these laws for what they are.

By Renée Paradis

Renée Paradis is a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project.

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