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A Continuum of Legislation and Intimidation in Ohio’s Planned Parenthood Fight

by Sarah Stankorb

February 13, 2016
Protesters at the Ohio Statehouse in 2009. Photo by ProgressOhio via Flickr.

On Tuesday, Ohio Governor John Kasich finished New Hampshire’s primary in second place, making him the establishment Republican darling of the moment. The next day, a bill reached final passage in Ohio’s legislature to “defund” Planned Parenthood of $1.3 million in state and federal money set aside for infant mortality prevention, HIV testing, and breast and cervical cancer testing under the Violence Against Women Act. The bill now awaits Kasich’s signature, a wave of the pen that could further endear Kasich to conservative voters leading into the February 20 South Carolina primary and friendlier Midwestern primaries in early March. With his focus on faith, optimism, and tax cuts, and possessing a sunnier demeanor than Ted Cruz or Donald Trump, nationally, Ohio’s governor has come to be described as a moderate. But within Ohio, Kasich has led an administration that has quietly restricted access to abortion through a variety of means: budget tinkering, legal maneuvers, and policies that don’t directly encourage intimidation or violence, but which have exploited the current atmosphere of vitriol to the same end.

Cincinnati and Dayton’s Planned Parenthoods are among the nine surviving surgical abortion providers in the state; both facilities are threatened with closure as the result of restrictions passed by a Republican-dominated state legislature and signed (and enforced) by Governor Kasich. If they shut down, Cincinnati—where the current Planned Parenthood health center stands as a replacement for the original building, burned down by an anti-abortion extremist in the 1980s—would become the largest metropolitan area in the country without an abortion clinic.

The fallout from the bill wouldn’t be restricted to Planned Parenthood. This legislation could also prohibit the state Department of Health from awarding state and federal grants to any organization that performs abortion, promotes abortion, or contracts with any organization that does so. For example, the Columbus Public Health department has said that the Planned Parenthood defunding bill would prevent it from contracting with any hospital currently operating in Columbus, because these hospitals provide abortions themselves, contract with abortion clinics, or refer patients for abortion services.

After an investigation found that Planned Parenthood was not guilty of the last round of paranoid accusations brought against it—in which GOP presidential candidates damned the healthcare provider for selling “baby parts” (based on false assertions in altered videos)—Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine raised new claims, in December, of improper fetal tissue disposal. DeWine asserted that Planned Parenthood was “steam-cooking fetuses and then disposing of them in a landfill.” Planned Parenthood called the claims false and inflammatory, and sued. Still, two bills have been introduced in the state House that would require cremation or burial of aborted fetuses (with no option for donation for research) and record keeping that some think could be turned into a database of women who’ve had abortions—lists of names that anti-abortion extremist groups could use to terrifying ends.

John Kasich. Photo by Michael Vadon via Flickr.

Intimidation and violence are traditionally the tool of radical fringe groups, but the long, dark shadow these groups have cast over abortion care providers in recent months has become a useful political weapon, not so much encouraged by lawmakers, but opportunistically leveraged in rhetoric that paints healthcare providers as monsters who sell baby parts and sanction the steam-boiling and trashing of fetal remains. It’s contributing to the reduction of access to abortion until it all but disappears in the state.

KC Slack interned at NARAL and later worked at Preterm Cleveland, where she counseled patients, made appointments, and learned in her first week how to do a bomb sweep. She tells me she held patients’ hands while they had their abortions. She heard the picketers shrieking “Mommy!” at patients, and telling Latina patients they’d be deported if they had abortions. Slack remembers walking around with emergency numbers on the back of her name tag and, as she walked into work, having to endure the menacing screams of men who looked like Colorado Springs shooter Robert Dear—who killed three people and wounded nine more at a Planned Parenthood clinic. Outsiders told her she was paranoid for believing someone might actually commit violence against her, but days after the Colorado Springs shooting she lamented evenly on Facebook: “We’ve known this was coming. Knowing it was coming doesn’t make me feel any better … We’ve been trying to tell you. Do you hear us now?”

Slack remembers thinking during her time at NARAL, “People die for this. I could be one of those people.” But also, “Ok, I’m going to do this.”

Dear’s mass shooting in Colorado Springs was part of a frightening lineage of violent attacks on clinics—and physicians—who perform abortions. There’s a spectrum between intimidation and violence that has long mingled with women’s reproductive choice in this country. There are the typically virulent voices of the picketers who besiege clinics across the country. But there is also the stark reality of extremists belonging to groups like the Army of God, which claims responsibility for many killings and bombings and whose members Dear reportedly described as “heroes.” There are websites that publish the home addresses of abortion providers and scrape social media to post photos of them—sometimes with their children—calling them the “American Abortion Cartel,” calling them monsters and murderers.

This fiction- and horror-drenched speech has bled into our politics. There was Carly Fiorina, in September urging Democrats to watch the now wholly discredited “sting” videos. “Watch a fully formed fetus on the table,” she said, “its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’” In a USA Today op-ed, Ted Cruz wrote about “senior Planned Parenthood officials laughing, swilling chardonnay and casually, callously, heartlessly discussing killing unborn children in order to sell their body parts” and claimed that Planned Parenthood is “in the business of killing unborn children on an industrial scale.” Cruz also celebrated an endorsement by Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, an organization whose vice president once pled guilty to charges of conspiring to bomb a clinic in California. Newman, also a board member of the recently indicted Center for Medical Progress, has connected California’s drought to abortion rates, saying, “Is it no wonder that California is experiencing the worst drought in history when it is the largest child-killer in all of the United States?”

Carly Fiorina. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.

The kind of language employed by public figures like Cruz and Fiorina creates a broader air of stop-at-nothing moral outrage, implicitly nodding at the extreme, extralegal notions of anti-choice crusaders. If you are on the receiving end of that outrage, providing women’s reproductive health has come to mean facing the brunt of public animosity and private threat. The belligerent thrust of anti-abortion sentiment has become a crucible.

In Cincinnati, Dr. Roslyn Kade is medical director for Southwest Ohio Planned Parenthood health centers. She also works at a private clinic in Dayton. After the Brookline, Massachusetts, attacks in 1994, when John Salvi killed two and wounded five at two clinics, Cincinnati’s Planned Parenthood increased its security measures, installed bullet-proof glass, sealed the front sidewalk and picketer-facing door. But security measures like these can only do so much when the threat of extremism follows healthcare workers home.

Kade says she’s had picketers outside her house, which infuriated even her “not pro-choice” neighbors, who did not look kindly on the people carrying gruesome pictures in a place where young kids rode their bikes. As she’s faced intimidation attempts over the years, her resolve has only deepened. “I don’t really look at it, because it’s not going to change my life in any way, and the purpose is to intimidate me,” says Kade.

She adds, “This is just normal reproductive healthcare. I say that over and over, this is just part of healthcare.”

What concerns her is access to reproductive healthcare, not the people who scream at her outside the health center or post personal information online, “not because I’m brave and not because I’m oblivious, but because if the object is to make abortion go away by killing the doctors, that’s a really untenable thing. If it’s to make abortion inaccessible because you intimidate the physicians, that’s also unacceptable.”

Photo via Twitter user @ProChoiceOH (NARAL Pro Choice Ohio)

I ask Kade which is a bigger threat to access right now, the chance of more domestic terrorism or Ohio’s increasingly tight anti-abortion laws, signed and supported by GOP presidential candidate Kasich. It’s the laws, she says, but they are bolstered by extremist threat.

Clinics in Ohio are required to sign transfer agreements (deals arranging for the exchange of patients, records, liabilities, etc.) with private hospitals or the abortion clinic loses its license. A variance (exception) exists, if the hospitals have individual doctors on staff who agree to serve as backup physicians available for emergencies. According to a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood in September, it is difficult to meet this requirement, not only because most local private hospitals are opposed to abortion on religious grounds, but also “because of hospitals’ fear of the harassment and intimidation they and their doctors would face if they were to enter into a [patient-transfer agreement] with an abortion clinic.”

In July of last year anti-abortion groups targeted Wright State University doctors who had signed on as emergency physicians for the Women’s Med Center of Dayton. These doctors’ faces were plastered next to photos of alleged aborted fetuses on large trucks, which were driven through the doctors’ neighborhoods and parked in front of their homes and places of work.

Kade notes, “They had to have individual names, and when you have individual names, the names are public record. So why do you want individual names? So that they can be harassed.”

It’s not that intimidation has been made law, but the laws, in Ohio at least, now function in a way in which intimidation is more than a fringe tool. Defunding Planned Parenthood (and anyone who contracts with an abortion provider) will have a chilling effect on hospitals and health departments across the state. It’s a policy that sidelines abortion providers when it can’t outlaw them. At the same time, there’s a more dangerous pall—they’ll know your name, they’ll come to your house—that hangs over doctors as they make a choice, along with their hospitals, to tether themselves to Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers publicly, in an environment where threat and fear have become the norm. It’s a space where civil restrictions and more violent opposition to abortion meet.

Display image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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A Continuum of Legislation and Intimidation in Ohio’s Planned Parenthood Fight