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Ohio's Abortion Ban Is New — But The Fight Leading Up To It Is Not

The fight that led to the so-called 'Heartbeat Bill' being signed into law goes back decades

By DeMicia Inman

You needn't look far to know that, in America, peoples's reproductive rights and bodily autonomy are under siege.

Almost weekly, conservative lawmakers are proposing bills and laws that would severely limit, and in many ways end people's reproductive rights and freedoms. In Texas, Republican state Rep. Tony Tinderholt introduced the Abolition of Abortion Act, which proposes abortion be punishable by death. Conservative lawmakers in the state of Georgia hope Governor Brian Kemp will sign the Fetal Heartbeat bill on May 12, which would prohibit abortion after doctors detect a fetal heartbeat with exceptions for rape and incest cases reported to police, or to save the life and protect the health of the mother.

A fetal heartbeat is detected typically five to six weeks into the gestational period. The American Pregnancy Association notes most women become aware of pregnancy at four to seven weeks. This leaves slim margins for anyone seeking an abortion procedure once a pregnancy is confirmed.

According to reports published by Planned Parenthood, the United States has already seen a 63 percent increase from 2018 to 2019 in bills that would ban abortion before many people know they are pregnant. The same data acknowledges that lawmakers in seven states — Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, and Washington — have proposed total bans on abortion, while Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Montana, Tennessee, and Texas are currently fielding “trigger” bans, laws that would take effect if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court. In total, lawmakers have filed 250 bills restricting abortion across state legislatures in 2019 so far.

This direct pushback against the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case, which ruled in favor of access to safe and legal abortion as a constitutional right, did not appear overnight. In fact, states have spent years laying the groundwork to enact legislature designed to undermine that crucial decision.

On April 11, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed the so-called Heartbeat Bill, now known as the Human Rights Protection Act, which aims to ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected with only the exception of a life-saving procedure for the pregnant person. The bill is poised to take effect in the next 90 days.

“Women should have the right to choose what happens to their bodies,” Tearra, a 25-year-old resident of Columbus, Ohio, tells MTV News. “To take that away should be against human rights. You should have the right to do whatever you want to your body without worrying about breaking a law.” Tearra did not vote for Governor DeWine and added that she feels the state government’s aim at criminalizing abortions signals a lack of prioritization for the health of women overall.

With confirmation of the Human Rights Protection Act, Ohio lawmakers’ dreams of banning abortion outright will essentially come true. Yet the disregard for the health and wellness of women in Ohio can be traced by a history of explicitly designed laws and policies from conservative Ohio lawmakers beginning in 1974, when Ohio  passed codes allowing hospitals or doctors to refuse to perform the procedure for any or no reason. By 1998, the state required minors to obtain parental consent prior to obtaining an abortion, and women with state-obtained health insurance were no longer able to use their policies to cover abortion except in cases of medical emergency. In 2007, Ohio declared that no state or local funds could be used to facilitate abortion except in cases of rape or incest reported to police or medical emergency.

Under former Governor John Kasich’s gubernatorial reign especially, a new set of traps arrived for people seeking a legal and safe abortion. Kasich was elected in 2011. His agenda included prohibiting public hospitals from providing abortion, requiring that healthcare providers give pregnant people mandatory ultrasounds even if they were not medically necessary, forcing women to be presented with the option to view the fetus or listen for a heartbeat, and barring organizations receiving funds from rape crisis programs from referring victims to abortion facilities. Doctors who performed abortions after a heartbeat can be detected would face fines and possible prison time.

These provisions were the Heartbeat Bill in its earliest form. First introduced in 2011, it did not pass, but has since been upgraded with the changes to become the Human Rights Protection Act, or Senate Bill 23 we know today. Along the way, it was vetoed twice by Kasich on the grounds that the bill would launch a costworthy and unsuccessful court battle, but was approved by the Ohio Senate 18-13 and the Ohio House passed it 56-40. Governor DeWine’s signing of the Human Rights Protection Act affirms campaign promises he made while seeking votes.

When MTV News reached out to Governor DeWine’s office for comment, a spokesperson directed us  to archives on the website for the governor’s position on the newly-signed law.

For Ohio, this means the more than 3 million people, many of them women, of average childbearing age who call the Buckeye State home face strict laws, unrealistic time constraints, and practically zero options beyond carrying the pregnancy to term, or seeking abortion elsewhere.

The Heartbeat Bill wasn’t the only mark the Kasich administration left on the state’s reproductive rights legacy: In 2016, the then-governor  signed a bill aiming to defund Planned Parenthood by stripping the organization of monies allocated for non-abortion services (reproductive healthcare providers like Planned Parenthood have always been blocked from using federal funds towards abortion services, per Title X provisions). After multiple blocks and appeals, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit decided in March 2019 that the state has rights to block the budget, cutting off necessary funding to health clinics in a direct attack to some of Ohio’s most vulnerable populations. Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region reports servicing over 20,000 patients in their clinic in 2016. Of these patients, resident nurses and doctors administered over 42,000 STI tests and treatment, more than 4,000 HIV tests, over 3,000 breast exams and over 2,000 women’s wellness physicals; 42 percent of these patients identify as a minority by racial qualifiers.

Five Thirty Eight reports that in 2011, there were 16 surgical abortion providers in Ohio; by 2015, that number had dropped to eight abortion providers. No state, other than Texas, lost so many clinics in such a short timespan. Now in 2019, online databases list seven clinics statewide that provide abortion services, and the one remaining medical clinic performing abortions in Kettering Ohio, a suburb of  Dayton, Ohio, faces closure after an Ohio appellate court revoked the clinic’s abortion license based on the lack of written transfer agreements from local hospitals, the Dayton Daily News reports. The clinic plans to appeal the decision in court, WOSU notes, and MTV News has reached out to the Women’s Med Clinic for comment.

If the center is closed, those in need lose access to not only abortion but also pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, and other vital reproductive health procedures. Women in this area would be forced to travel over an hour for the nearest site. A 20-year-old woman attending the University of Dayton in need of abortion services must potentially take at least the following steps:

  • Confirm pregnancy before a fetal heartbeat can be detected, a next to impossible task.
  • Have or obtain funds for travel and lodging in Cincinnati, the nearest city where a health facility providing abortion exists.
  • Undergo counseling and a mandatory ultrasound, which she would be forced view and keep a physical copy of.
  • Wait at least 24 hours, sometimes longer, for an appointment for the actual procedure, requiring at least two trips to the facility.
  • Have adequate insurance or other funding for abortion procedure.

This basic list does not account for any factors leading to a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy. While the reason for an abortion should not matter, the internal battle and personal circumstances often add to the weight of unnecessary political red tape.

Minors have it even harder. A 17-year-old seeking an abortion must also have at least one parent or legal guardian present. These procedures represent a clear disregard of women’s ownership to their bodies and the right to make decisions on their own behalfs.

According to Carolyn Casper, the President of National Organization for Women Ohio, or Ohio NOW, the Human Rights Protection Act should serve as a wakeup call to the entire country — even in states where legislature seems less likely to take hold.

“It’s frightening because it’s spreading nationally,” she told MTV News.

Casper says the solution will come when women are the people creating the laws and regulations. “We can yell and scream and stand outside all we want but, we need to be at the table, not on the menu,” she said, pointing to the election of 125 women in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections as an encouraging start. Still, though women make up more than half of our country’s population, they are not yet represented politically with the same numbers.

The current battle in Ohio exists because of decades’ worth of attempts to move the needle towards outlawing abortion, actions the entire country can expect under our current political leadership. Anti-abortion advocates have seemingly become emboldened by current President Donald Trump, and found allyship in Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, giving conservatives an edge in key Supreme Court decisions. As a result, the overturning of Roe v. Wade could happen sooner than later. However, local efforts are leading the way for regional and country-wide change.

“Without exceptions for cases of rape and incest and with complete disregard of the protections for the life and health of the woman, this ban will have profound negative impacts on women in Columbus, [Ohio],” City Council Member Elizabeth Brown said at a recent meeting.

The Ohio ACLU is also taking legal action against the state of Ohio, arguing that a ban of abortion at six weeks, or with the detection of a fetal heartbeat, directly violates constitutional rights and completely undermines the precedent set by Roe v. Wade. The lawsuit names Preterm Cleveland, a northern Ohio clinic, as the plaintiff. Additional plaintiffs will include Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio, Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio, and Dayton’s Women’s Med Center.

“This legislation is blatantly unconstitutional and we will fight to the bitter end to ensure that this bill is permanently blocked,” Freda Levenson, legal director at the Ohio ACLU, said in a press release. “SB 23 is one of the most aggressive, oppressive, and radical attacks against women ever seen in this state and this country. A nearly identical bill in Kentucky was just struck down by a federal judge – we feel confident our impending litigation will ultimately prevail.”