As the Ohio legislature continues to narrow the eye of the needle abortion providers must thread to legally provide services to women, the Cincinnati area’s two remaining clinics face the threat of closure.
A judge recently ordered a clinic in Sharonville closed as it fights a court battle over its license. Meanwhile, the region’s other clinic, a Planned Parenthood facility in Mount Auburn, has been waiting for more than a year to hear from the state about whether its license will be renewed.
Planned Parenthood Southwestern Ohio spokeswoman Danielle Craig says that’s caused a lot of uncertainty.
“We are able to continue operating because we’ve filed all our paperwork,” Craig says. “The ball is in the Ohio Department of Health’s court right now.”
If both clinics shut down, Cincinnati could become the largest metropolitan area in the country without access to a local clinic, according to data reported by The Cincinnati Enquirer last year. Advocates for women’s access to abortions and other health services provided by clinics say that will put a huge burden on low-income women who depend on clinics near where they live.
Conservative lawmakers have enacted a number of new restrictions aimed at limiting or eliminating abortions since 2010, including required counseling sessions before abortion procedures, waiting periods and a law that codified an administrative practice requiring transfer agreements between clinics and area hospitals. Those agreements basically state that a hospital will accept a patient from a clinic.
In 2013, lawmakers slipped abortion restrictions into the state budget legislation after debate on the bill had ended. One of those laws prohibits state-funded hospitals from signing transfer agreements with abortion clinics. Ohio is the first state in the country to enact such restrictions.
Conservative lawmakers in the Ohio legislature say restrictions enacted over the past few years in Ohio are about women’s safety. But abortion providers say the risks associated with abortions are minimal and that the new laws are all about closing down clinics and depriving women of access to the procedure entirely.
A study by the Guttmacher Institute, a liberal think tank, found that when performed in the first-trimester, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures performed, with less than 0.05 percent risk for complications that need hospital care.
Planned Parenthood says the move shows the laws aren’t about women’s safety, but about politics.
Planned Parenthood used to have a transfer agreement with University of Cincinnati Hospital, but that agreement ended with the new law.
The Mount Auburn clinic has requested a variance to the law, which it can get by proving it has three doctors on staff with admitting privileges at local hospitals.
“In Cincinnati, it’s particularly difficult because the majority of hospitals are either state funded or religiously affiliated,” Craig says. “We feel if women’s health was really the main focus of these laws, we’d be able to work with these great hospitals. It sends a mixed message.”
Ohio’s regulations mirror a national effort by pro-life groups and conservative lawmakers to clamp down on abortion clinics with restrictive regulations that make operating very difficult or impossible. Texas, for instance, has winnowed the 40 clinics it had in 2011 down to just 20, and that number could fall to as few as six if new regulations withhold federal judicial scrutiny. And Mississippi’s last remaining clinic may soon close due to similar regulations.
Pro-life groups like Ohio Right to Life say the approach is an incremental way to reduce and eventually eliminate abortions in Ohio. The group works with conservative lawmakers to get legislation passed making access to abortions more difficult.
Even before the new restrictions, however, the number of abortions performed in the state had already been declining for years, having dropped 50 percent from its peak in the early 1980s.
Like the Mount Auburn clinic, Women’s Med in Sharonville filed for a variance, which the ODH denied last year. The latest chapter in the clinic’s fight to stay open came June 30, when a Hamilton County magistrate said he will rule that Women’s Med must close its doors.
The ruling overturns a decision by Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Jerome Metz that gave the clinic a temporary reprieve while it appeals the Ohio Department of Health’s decision not to renew its license. But the magistrate’s decision hinges on approval from Metz, and it’s unclear whether he will tell the clinic to close.
Pro-life groups like Cincinnati Right to Life have applauded the ruling and pushed for the clinic’s closing.
For the time being, Women’s Med remains open awaiting the magistrate’s July 10 filing. A worker who answered the phone July 3 declined to talk about the clinic’s situation, and the company has not returned CityBeat’s requests for comment.
The circumstances behind the clinic’s variance being revoked in the first place are controversial.
Former Ohio Department of Health regulator Roy Croy, now retired from the department, told The Enquirer in February that officials with the department were “looking for anything” that they could use to shut down Women’s Med. Croy’s office renewed the clinic’s license in 2011, but he was subsequently suspended for missing a complaint from someone outside Ohio about the fact that one of the clinic’s three doctors with hospital admitting privileges had retired.
In 2012, the clinic’s request for a variance renewal was denied. Records show high-level officials with the ODH were involved in assessing the request and that the officials were in regular contact with Gov. John Kasich’s office on the matter. Croy’s office was instructed not to follow normal procedures such as requesting information or performing an inspection on the clinic. When an inspection was done anyway, and the clinic was found to meet standards, staffers at the ODH sent out a renewal. That renewal was reversed a day later by ODH head Ted Wymyslo.
Women’s Med appealed this decision, which has led to the current series of court cases.
Officials with ODH, who are not commenting on the case while it is being litigated, admit to the increased scrutiny and say it happened because the clinic was applying for an exception to state rules. They also say their coordination with the governor’s office is routine in such cases and that the department made its decision about Women’s Med independently of Gov. Kasich.
Still, it’s clear the noose is tightening around clinics in the state and across the country. Ohio had 14 clinics before the new regulations; it could be down to seven if those seeking variances aren’t approved.
Toledo’s last remaining clinic is fighting to avoid being shuttered by the state after struggling to find a hospital with which to enter into a transfer agreement. Its transfer agreement with University of Toledo was terminated by the state law prohibiting state-funded hospitals from working with clinics.
The clinic finally signed a deal with a hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., 50 miles away, only to be told that hospital wasn’t close enough. The clinic is appealing that decision, saying it can helicopter emergency patients to the hospital in 15 to 20 minutes. ©