In what could become a blueprint for the Right, the state rushed through harsh restrictions on abortion rights.
Women in Ohio didn't see this coming. The state’s new two-year budget, approved by Governor John Kasich on June 30, includes several breathtaking restrictions on abortion and reproductive health clinics, and stands to strip funding from many rape crisis centers if they don't comply with gag orders. And it passed so quickly that many Ohioans only found out about the anti-choice measures after they had taken effect. Now, the pro-choice voters of Ohio find themselves facing a worst-case scenario: trying to pick up the pieces and regain their rights before too many women are hurt or killed by laws they didn't have time to fight.
The abortion provisions were added to the budget on June 25, after only a week or two of discussion, and were passed into law five days later, giving media outlets and protestors less than a week to raise awareness or opposition. This is not to say there was no opposition before the budget's passage—only that it wasn't widespread enough, or quick enough, to have a real effect. Doctors spoke at the Ohio Statehouse, calling the provisions dangerous and unethical. But there weren't enough of them, or enough people willing to take them seriously, and so it didn't matter.
State Sen. Nina Turner sent out e-mails to constituents warning them of an attack on women. “I have been fighting on your behalf and I'm not alone, but we are outnumbered in a legislature run by ideologues,” she wrote—but there was nothing as eye-catching as Wendy Davis' epic filibuster, and so the media coverage was light. As the week went on, Texan protesters numbered in the thousands, while on June 28, the Columbus Dispatch reports, only about 100 protesters were present at the Ohio Statehouse.
Texas is the state that abortion rights activists are looking to for inspiration. But Ohio is the state they should look to as a cautionary tale. There's plenty of progressive talk about a “war on women,” but this wasn't a battle. It was an assassination: quick, unexpected and catastrophic. The story of Ohio is a story about how any American, even those who don't believe their reproductive rights are particularly endangered, can wake up one morning to find them gone.
“I hadn't actually heard about House Budget 59 until it passed, via the Huffington Post, late the night it happened,” says protester Amanda Parker-Wolery, in Cleveland. “This bothered me, as an avid follower of the news. Something seemed amiss that not more people were talking about this beforehand. Come to find out, I wasn't the only one.”
She wasn't. “Very few people in our state even knew what was going on,” says Alliea Phipps, state director of the the non-profit women's organization UniteWomen.org, who worked to oppose the provisions before they were passed into law.
Now, much of the work on the ground consists not just of figuring out ways to regain lost ground, but of making sure that fellow Ohioans know which rights they've lost. Bella Sin, another Cleveland protester who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, said that one of the most important parts of her work involves trying to get the word out to people for whom it's otherwise inaccessible: “I'm translating all of this information into Spanish, letting people know what happened.”
There's reason to believe that it simply couldn't have happened if the people of Ohio had been allowed to decide the matter directly. Ohio is not a state that tolerates political extremism of any stripe. It's a swing state, a moderate state, so resolutely middle-of-the-aisle that its voting preferences can famously be used to determine the outcome of national elections. As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.
And yet, Kasich's restrictions are unapologetically out-there. Overnight, the nation's political barometer has become an anti-choice fanatic's wet dream. Anyone seeking an abortion will be forced to submit to a state-mandated ultrasound—and to pay for that ultrasound after it is forced on them. Planned Parenthood has been effectively stripped of state funding, but so-called “crisis pregnancy centers”—unregulated anti-abortion disinformation centers famous for placing misleading ads, providing medically unsound advice and using coercive tactics—will be receiving taxpayer money. Any clinic providing abortions will be required, by law, to enter into a contract with a nearby hospital, guaranteeing transport if a client experiences complications and needs urgent care. But public hospitals will be prevented by law from entering into such contracts, meaning that clinics will be shut down if they can't find a local, privately owned hospital willing to comply. The state's rape crisis centers are also under attack: If they refer a pregnant survivor to abortion services, or even mention the word “abortion,” they too will be defunded. According to Phipps, the law even endangers people who miscarry. Surgical abortions are often necessary after a first-trimester miscarriage to prevent hemorrhaging or infections. But the Kasich budget requires a 48-hour waiting period unless a doctor determines that the patient is at immediate risk of death.
So this, too, is a way the nation can go. If the reproductive rights battle in Texas is a story about how even conservative states can be brought to feel the power of pro-choice voters, then Ohio is a story about how, even in a state where most people do not share extremist anti-choice views, a few sufficiently conservative men in positions of power can bully their way into enacting extremist anti-choice policies. A poll released shortly before the budget passed indicated that 52 percent of voters said they did not support the proposed restrictions. Indeed, when similarly radical bills have been put forward on their own, and not within the context of a budget, as in the case of 2012's “heartbeat bill,” they've been shot down. But because Republicans control the state legislature, the anti-abortion radicals have the edge.
So what's left? How can Ohioans regain those rights after they've been wiped off the books?
“I don't think there's anything we can do about it,” Sin says frankly. “I've spoken to the [other pro-choice] organizations and we can either wait for [Kasich] to get out of office or… I don't know if we can overturn it. The long-range goal should be activism and figuring out how to fund those particular places that were defunded.” She's planning a rally, with the social media hashtag #cle4women, and a burlesque benefit to raise funds.
Phipps is more hopeful. Although the state legislature is on summer break now, she says, there may be a chance to address the matter soon.
“There's a strong belief that Governor Kasich will call the legislature back to deal with Medicaid,” she says, referring to a Medicaid expansion proposed by Kasich that did not make it into the final budget. The thinking seems to be that if the budget is reopened on this issue, pro-choicers may gain a necessary inroad to challenging the abortion restrictions. “If not, we have to wait until September,” she says. “There are other possibilities, and if you've been reading the national news, very few of these archaic laws have been found legal… in that case, the taxpayers will have to pay for a court battle.”
Gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald has spoken of initiating such a court battle. He has also indicated that he would put the abortion restrictions to a vote during the gubernatorial election itself, in November of 2014. If he can collect 118,000 signatures, FitzGerald will be able to create a citizen-initiated statute to repeal the anti-choice provisions, which then—assuming he can collect the same number of signatures—would be put to a vote in November. Phipps says that UniteWomen.org has been running voting drives—and that they've been successful, with many people who say they've never voted before signing up in the hopes of defeating the legislation.
Parker-Wolery has set up a Change.org petition demanding that the law be overturned, and a Facebook page, and is planning a rally for early August. She shares the long-term goal of getting Kasich out of office.
“We will register people to vote, go door-to-door, drive people to the polls if we have to,” Parker-Wolery told me. “This will end.”
As for her short-term definition of victory, it's fairly simple: In a world where pro-choicers are winning, “every single person in Ohio would know what happened on June 30,” she says. There may be a long, hard battle coming in Ohio, but at least this time, everyone will know the stakes.
This piece first appeared in inthesetimes.com