Ohio women won't go back

Haley Swenson and Tim Adams report on the onslaught of legislative attacks launched by Ohio Republicans against a woman's right to choose abortion.

Ohio Gov. John KasichOhio Gov. John Kasich

THIS SUMMER, conservatives in Ohio launched the first in a series of legislative assaults on reproductive health care in the state.

In July, Gov. John Kasich signed into law the Ohio budget bill, which contained some of the most significant restrictions on reproductive health in the country, alarming activists in Ohio and beyond about what this assault represents to the larger struggle for reproductive justice.

The restrictions in the budget require patients seeking an abortion to both undergo and pay for the cost of invasive ultrasounds. Doctors are required to inform patients of the existence of a fetal heartbeat and the likelihood of the fetus surviving if carried to term.

Furthermore, the budget bill effectively defunded Planned Parenthood, reprioritizing family planning funds to "crisis pregnancy centers," which distribute phony (and often religious-based) information to pregnant women considering abortion--such as the refuted claim that abortion leads to breast cancer. It also defunds rape crisis centers that refer sexual assault survivors to abortion providers.

Worse still, the budget prohibited public hospitals from signing transfer agreements with clinics that perform abortions. These transfer agreements, which are required by state law, facilitate the transfer of a patient from a clinic to a hospital in the rare case of an emergency during an abortion procedure.

Because clinics that do not have transfer agreements are not allowed to operate, this policy effectively forces the closure of clinics that do not have access to private hospitals willing to sign such agreements. So far, clinics in Cincinnati and Sharonville, Ohio, have shut their doors as a result, and a Toledo clinic is on the brink of doing so, as it works through a final appeal of the state's decision.

Finally, in an even more extreme move, the budget officially changed the legal definition of what constitutes a fetus. As a result of the budget bill, a fertilized egg is now considered a fetus, even before it implants in the uterine wall. Although the legal implications of this are unclear, it's possible that this could outlaw certain forms of birth control, such as intrauterine devices (IUDs).

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SINCE THE passage of the budget bill, the right wing has introduced even more assaults on the rights of Ohio women to control their own bodies.

These include House Bill (HB) 200 and the so-called "Heartbeat Bill." HB 200 extends the mandatory waiting period for patients seeking abortion from 24 to 48 hours and removes the exemption for most cases of emergency. Women would only be able to avoid the waiting period if they would not survive otherwise.

The bill would also place several new restrictions on the ability of doctors to care for their patients. It would force doctors to tell patients of supposed links between abortion and breast cancer. It would also require doctors to inform patients of how much money they make from each abortion they perform. Any non-compliant doctor would face a felony charge and a fine of up to $1 million.

The "Heartbeat Bill," which the Ohio Republican Party tried unsuccessfully to pass numerous times in the recent past, would reinforce the mandatory ultrasound requirement passed in the budget bill. This is crucial to the right wing's anti-choice strategy, as non-budgetary measures included in a budget bill may not survive legal challenges.

Ohio's new restrictions and those still proposed are so severe that abortion rights supporters around the country have taken notice. The onslaught of anti-abortion legislation has overwhelmed pro-choice forces locally. It's not just what the laws threaten to do to abortion access immediately that has people worried about Ohio, but what they represent in the larger struggle for reproductive justice.

As the New York Times noted, Ohio anti-abortion groups have adopted a new strategy for attacking abortion rights, one that may prove to be a lesson to others throughout the country. Instead of explicitly banning abortion and challenging Roe v. Wade directly, Ohio anti-choicers have chosen an incremental strategy, restricting abortion access as severely as possible without banning it, in order to push the limits of Roe as far as they can without the justice system intervening.

The inevitability of Ohio's restrictions ultimately being fought for some time in lower-level courts, as well as the overwhelming power of the Republicans in the Ohio government, have caused some frustrations among grassroots activists about where to focus their energy and how to mobilize Ohioans in this climate.

The barrage of several anti-abortion bills at once stands to overwhelm a pro-choice movement that has long relied on friendly politicians to combat such legislation, politicians who are at the moment outnumbered in Ohio.

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THE NEED to build real, grassroots power has been a common theme at a number of protests, both small and large, that have taken place since the summer's budget passed.

Many activists in Ohio look back to the massive 2011 protests against Senate Bill 5, the Ohio anti-union bill that mirrored Wisconsin's infamous attack on collective bargaining, and the subsequent highly successful petition and referendum campaign that ultimately overturned the law in Ohio, as a sign of what it means to have the kind of power it takes to overrule a right-wing, corporate-funded stranglehold from the grassroots.

But without the kind of organizational infrastructure for initiating mass, statewide mobilizations Ohio unions had, pro-choice activists have had to focus first on building grassroots organizations that, while they may not be in a position to mount a real challenge to the right-wing government right now, will be capable of wielding real power in the future.

This outlook has led activists not only to stage protests, but also to hold meetings, discussions and trainings about a broad array of questions related to reproductive justice in order to build a stronger base of activists.

For instance, the Ohio Reproductive Justice Task Force, with support from the local chapter of Choice USA, sponsored a panel discussion in September that included an organizer from NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio to explain the details of the budget, as well as speakers who focused on the history of the reproductive justice framework, addressed what reproductive justice means to the trans* community, and spoke to some of the ways in which women of color have been left out of reproductive justice movements in the past, and the issues that a new movement must address to be truly multiracial and antiracist.

The immediacy of the need to fight against the budget restrictions has been matched by a commitment to building the right kind of movement that can win a diverse and dedicated group of organizers to the cause, not just the cause of fighting off this particular attack, but all those that may come in the future.

In October, the ACLU of Ohio announced it would mount a legal challenge to three of the anti-abortion measures contained in the state budget, on the grounds that including them violated the "single-subject" requirement for legislation in the Ohio constitution by going beyond the purview of budget-related concerns.

The lawsuit was the first step toward what activists had hoped would be some type of legal response from mainstream progressive organizations.

Even established pro-choice organizations like Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio and NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio have struggled to mount a major fightback, as both houses of the Ohio legislature and the governorship are occupied by Republicans, leaving them little sway as lobbyists.

Throughout Ohio, grassroots coalitions, including newly formed groups like Stand with Ohio Women and the Ohio Reproductive Justice Task Force, as well as older liberal formations like the Feminist Majority Foundation, have staged dozens of protests throughout the state. A rally in early October drew over a thousand people to the Statehouse.

Most of the protests held in response to the anti-abortion restrictions in Ohio since June have had slogans that are slight variations on the same, basic declaration: We won't go back.

Abortion-rights defenders have attempted to mobilize new swaths of Ohioans to activism by emphasizing that women's lives are endangered by restrictions on the right to choose, and are recalling the history of the women who risked their lives to obtain abortions before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal.

But, at a moment characterized by both small, still-developing organizations and widespread fear and anger about the future of Ohioans to determine their own reproductive futures, the past should represent more than fear and danger. Roe v. Wade itself came about on the heels of intense grassroots pressure and a nationwide mobilization to force a discussion on women's rights to bodily autonomy, safety and genuine access to choices.

Building stronger grassroots power through democratic, independent and inclusive organizations in the here and now seems the only way we will be able to create a lasting fightback for reproductive justice that is capable of ensuring that we don't go back, but forward.