News Law and Policy

Federal Court Blocks Ohio From Closing Clinics

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A federal court on Tuesday issued a preliminary injunction blocking state health officials from enforcing regulations that advocates claim unconstitutionally target abortion providers.

Reproductive health-care clinics in Cincinnati and Dayton will stay open after a federal court on Tuesday blocked state health officials from enforcing requirements that advocates say unconstitutionally target reproductive health-care clinics for closure.

Attorneys representing Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio filed a federal lawsuit in September challenging the constitutionality of abortion restrictions in the two most recent state budgets: HB 59 (2013) and HB 64 (2015).

Abortion providers in Ohio face a complex web of regulations in order to operate in the state, where GOP lawmakers and Republican Gov. John Kasich have systematically slashed access to abortion care. Ohio requires that abortions be performed only in ambulatory surgical facilities (ASFs) that maintain a written transfer agreement (WTA) with a local hospital.

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. The plaintiffs claim that ODH has instead, on limited occasions, granted a “variance” from the WTA requirement for clinics that satisfy that requirement. A variance is valid for one year. Thus, an ASF that cannot obtain a transfer agreement must reapply for a variance every year.

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Ohio’s GOP majority in 2013 made those regulations even more onerous when they 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 the state Health Department fails to act on a variance application within 60 days or if the department denies the ASF’s request for a variance.

Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio’s lawsuit sought Tuesday’s preliminary injunction on implementation of HB 64’s automatic suspension and 60-day provisions.

“The challenged restrictions are all medically unnecessary,” NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Executive Director Kellie Copeland said in a statement following the decision. “Transfer agreements and license application restrictions do not improve patient care in any way. In fact, the abortion restrictions signed by Gov. Kasich make it harder for women to access safe care from a doctor. They are bad policies and bad politics.”

The targeted regulation of abortion provider (TRAP) laws in Ohio have produced a wave of clinic closures. Nine health centers provide surgical abortion in the entire state, down from 14 health centers in 2013. Tuesday’s order protects at least two of those nine facilities from closing, while the legal challenge to the constitutionality of the measures proceeds.

“The preliminary injunction is a victory for women in Ohio, but the fight is not over as John Kasich’s dangerous attack on women’s health continues to threaten thousands of Ohioans,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of American and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement. “Ohio paints a grim picture of what the situation could be for women across the country if Kasich or one of his extreme rivals is elected.”

Along with the TRAP laws at issue in Tuesday’s ruling, Ohio has in place a forced 24-hour waiting period and was among the first states to enact strict restrictions on medication abortion, mandating doctors follow federal government protocol despite advances in practice.

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