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Lawsuit Seeks to Keep Open Abortion Clinics in Ohio

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses the Kasich administration of a "deliberate strategy" to close clinics in the state.

Attorneys representing Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio filed a lawsuit Tuesday, asking a court to block efforts by the state to close the last two ambulatory surgical centers performing abortions in Cincinnati and Dayton.

The complaint, filed in federal court, accuses conservatives under the Republican Gov. John Kasich’s administration of a “deliberate strategy to severely reduce access to abortion by imposing and enforcing laws and regulations that do not promote women’s health or any other valid state interest.”

There were 14 clinics in Ohio providing surgical abortion at the beginning of 2013, according to the complaint. Now, thanks to a series of targeted regulations of abortion provider (TRAP) laws, there are only nine clinics providing surgical abortions. Advocates claim at least three of those remaining clinics, including the two Planned Parenthood clinics that filed suit, are in jeopardy of closing.

Kasich is one of 17 Republicans seeking the party’s presidential nomination. He has done more to limit access to abortion care than perhaps any other GOP candidate.

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Abortion providers in Ohio face a complex web of regulations in order to operate in the state. Ohio requires that abortions be performed only in ambulatory surgical facilities (ASFs) that maintain a written transfer agreement (WTA) with a local hospital (the WTA requirement). The Department of Health (ODH) has the “ability to grant a waiver of this requirement, which, under Ohio administrative rules, would make the WTA requirement inapplicable for a given clinic.

ODH has not granted any waivers of this requirement, according to the plaintiffs. Instead, the plaintiffs claim, ODH has, on limited occasions, granted a “variance” from the WTA requirement for clinics that satisfy the WTA requirement. A variance is valid for one year. Thus, an ASF that cannot obtain a WTA must reapply for a variance every single year.

Ohio’s GOP majority in 2013 passed HB 59, which bans abortion clinics, and only abortion clinics, from obtaining the necessary transfer agreement from a “public hospital.” Then in 2015, Ohio Republicans passed HB 64, which immediately and automatically suspends an ASF’s license if ODH fails to act on a variance application within 60 days or if ODH denies the ASF’s request for a variance.

The automatic suspension provision takes effect on September 29, leaving all ASFs with variance applications pending subject to immediate licensure suspension at any time.

If the courts do not step in and block these latest attacks, according to advocates, the last two remaining health centers in Southwest Ohio will immediately shut down, including Planned Parenthood’s health center in Cincinnati. That would make Cincinnati the largest metropolitan area in the United States without a surgical abortion provider.

“Years of hostile policies have already decimated women’s access to safe, legal abortion in Ohio,” said Cecile Richards, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “If the courts do not step in, half of the health centers that provide abortion in Ohio will have closed in only two years.”

Medical experts say there is no evidence to support the claim that transfer agreements promote patient safety.

“Attacks on a woman’s reproductive choice jeopardizes her safety and the restrictions in Ohio will only put women at increased risk,” Mark S. DeFrancesco, president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said in a statement following the filing of the lawsuit. “Research and experience show that where abortion is illegal or highly restricted, women resort to desperate and dangerous means to end unwanted pregnancies.”

In addition to the TRAP laws at issue in Tuesday’s lawsuit, Ohio also has in place a mandatory 24-hour waiting period and was among the first states to enact strict restrictions on medication abortion, mandating doctors follow FDA protocol despite advances in practice.

Attorneys for the State of Ohio have not yet responded to the lawsuit.

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