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Both sides of debate find Ohio abortion law decision to be historic

New budget puts restriction on access


Ohio Gov. John Kasich exercised his line-item veto pen 22 times last week but left all of the abortion provisions intact.

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COLUMBUS — Texas Sen. Wendy Davis (D., Forth Worth) made national news when she recently filibustered on that state’s Senate floor for 11 hours until the clock ran out on passage of a sweeping anti-abortion bill.

Hours later, Democratic women stood on the floors of the Ohio House and Senate to make many of the same arguments that Ms. Davis made, but a budget bill similar to what was blocked in Austin made it to Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s desk and was signed into the law.

“This isn’t about one bill or about one state,” one of those Ohio women, state Sen. Nina Turner (D., Cleveland), said. “It is about the unrelenting obsession with regulating a woman’s womb. Over 700 bills in 42 states in just the last few months have been introduced to regulate a woman’s constitutionally guaranteed right to choose.

“Texas lit a fuse,” she said.

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Several provisions that critics argue restrict access to abortion in Ohio made it into the state budget. One was added in conference committee at the last possible moment that any changes could be made to the $62 billion, two-year spending plan.

With Republicans controlling both chambers of the Ohio General Assembly, abortion-rights advocates placed their last-ditch hopes on a Kasich veto. The Republican governor had taken on members of his own party before by promoting expansion of Medicaid eligibility under President Obama’s new health-care law and by refusing to endorse efforts to make Ohio a right-to-work state.

But Mr. Kasich sent signals that lightning probably wasn’t going to strike a third time. “Just keep in mind that I’m pro-life,” he said. He exercised his line-item veto pen 22 times last week but left all of the abortion provisions intact.

They include:

● A prohibition against public hospitals or the physicians affiliated with them entering into written agreements with ambulatory surgical centers that perform abortions to accept their patients in case of emergency. The clinics must have such agreements in place as a condition of their licenses.

● A requirement that doctors test for a fetal heartbeat, then inform the patient seeking an abortion in writing of the presence of that heartbeat, and then provide statistical likelihood that the fetus could be carried to term. The doctor’s failure to do so would be a first-degree misdemeanor, carrying up to six months in jail, for the first violation and a fourth-degree felony, carrying up o 18 months in jail, for subsequent violations.

● A new priority list when it comes to distributing Ohio’s share of federal planning funds that puts Planned Parenthood last in line behind state and local agencies, nonpublic federally qualified heath centers and community action agencies, and nonpublic entities that also provide comprehensive primary and preventive health care.

● A threat to the public funding for rape crisis centers that discuss abortion as an option in their counseling of clients. The provision, which also includes an additional funding stream for the centers, also had been previously supported by House Democrats when it was included in a broader bill last month.

Ohio Right to Life has proven successful in getting much of its agenda through the Republican-controlled General Assembly, even when it came to blocking a much stricter Heartbeat Bill pushed by a splinter group that Ohio Right to Life feared would be struck down as unconstitutional and set back the gains made in recent years.

The organization has had other high-profile legislative successes over the last few years. 

They included passage of a law last session that prohibits a late-term abortion once a doctor determines an unborn child would be viable outside the womb. It contains an exception if the mother’s health or life is in danger.

But Mike Gonidakis, the organization’s president, does consider this budget to be historic.

“When you take everything in total, it’s absolutely historic,” he said. “The governor had found a way to get additional money to poor pregnant women and to get more medically accurate information to women — the heartbeat, at her discretion. These are common-sense provisions that will withstand court scrutiny. None is an overreach.

“Elections have consequences,” Mr. Gonidakis said. “We had not had this much success in a budget to this date.”

Planned Parenthood of Northeast Ohio recently learned that it had just been awarded $562,000 in family planning funds from the Department of Health under the competitive grant process that expired with the fiscal year on June 30. Now it’s waiting to learn whether the money will be withdrawn since the rules have changed.

“[Ohio Right to Life has] legislators, mostly males, who seem to think this looks like good health care,” said Stephanie Kight, president of Planned Parenthood of Ohio.

“I don’t know their motives, but they’re interested in eliminating abortion access completely. Districts have been gerrymandered so that elected officials don’t represent Ohioans and what’s in the best interests of Ohio.”

Ms. Kight said legal challenges are likely.

“That’s certainly happening,” she said. “There is also a heck of a lot of talking going on among women so that they’ll all know what happened to them on [June 30] so that they can make a change in a year and a half.”

That’s when Mr. Kasich, all statewide executive officeholders, and most state lawmakers will be on the ballot.

“We will work night and day to protect officeholders who courageously stand up on pro-life issues,” Mr. Gonidakis said. “We want this issue to be front and center … Ohio is a pro-life state. We’ll take it to the ballot. If [Ohio Democratic Party Chairman] Chris Redfern wants to make it front and center, let’s do it.”

The filibuster that Ms. Davis mounted in Texas at least temporarily blocked that state’s attempt to require all 42 of its abortion clinics to upgrade to ambulatory surgical centers, something that was already required in Ohio under Department of Health rules.

The Ohio budget that Mr. Kasich signed, however, takes that rule and cements it in law. It gives the department authority to shut down a clinic that fails to meet the requirement while simultaneously limiting the clinic’s options to qualify under it. Clinics could still seek transfer agreements with private hospitals.

The rule was used last month to shut down Center for Choice in Toledo after negotiations with the University of Toledo Medical Center, the former Medical College of Ohio, broke off, and neither of Toledo’s other two hospitals offered to sign an agreement.

Rep. Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon), sponsor of a bill that would prohibit abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detectable, agrees that the sheer number of abortion-related amendments in this budget may be unusual.

“But I would say that there have been many budgets that have had something considered pro-life in them,” he said.

He dismissed the suggestion that the sudden influx of anti-abortion budget amendments in Ohio is the result of outside influences that have driven similar efforts in other states at the same time.

Instead, he said the new budget, in some cases, represented a convergence of abortion-related bills that had been around for a while and on which the Republican-controlled General Assembly was finally ready to move.

“The restructuring of the federal dollars when it comes to Planned Parenthood had been worked on for a couple of years,” he said. “It just came to a resolution now. The issue of public hospitals and transfer agreements is a relatively new occurrence that started with the issue I raised in Toledo.”

He voted for the budget, even though he would have preferred his much stricter Heartbeat Bill, the bill Ohio Right to Life has worked to block.

“I would have liked to have the entirety of the bill, but this is all we could get through the Senate,” Mr. Wachtmann said.

“It’s unfortunate that pro-life senators couldn’t get more. I look at these issues in the budget as good stuff to save babies.”

Contact Jim Provance at: or 614-221-0496.

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