Cincinnati’s only remaining abortion clinic has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state and is asking the courts to strike down a law that bans the facility, and all other abortion surgery centers, from partnering with public hospitals.
The lawsuit, filed Monday by an attorney representing Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio, calls the state’s abortion regulations an “unconstitutional scheme” aimed at restricting women’s access to abortions.
“This civil rights case challenges Ohio’s continuing assault on the right of women to exercise reproductive freedom,” writes Jennifer Branch, the attorney representing Planned Parenthood, in the lawsuit.
In an inspection report, Ohio Director of Health Richard Hodges threatened to close the Cincinnati-based Planned Parenthood’s Elizabeth Campbell Medical Center — which provides roughly 2,600 abortion surgeries annually — because it doesn’t have an emergency patient transfer agreement with a hospital. The clinic was cited over the issue in a report released last month.
State law requires outpatient surgical centers, such as abortion clinics, to maintain contracts with a local hospital in the event a patient needs emergency medical treatment.
The Planned Parenthood location was forced last year to end its long-standing agreement with the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, also named in the lawsuit, when state lawmakers passed a bill banning abortion clinics from holding such agreements with public hospitals.
Since then, officials with Planned Parenthood have waited for 13 months for state health officials to respond to a request that would allow the clinic to use back-up doctors to assist patients during a medical emergency, in lieu of the transfer agreement requirement.
The requirement — and the state’s failure to grant a variance to the law — could effectively cut off abortion access to 2.1 million people living in the state’s largest metropolitan area, Branch argues in the lawsuit.
The closure of Planned Parenthood’s surgery center would make “abortion virtually unavailable in Cincinnati and violate the constitutional rights of (the clinic and patients) and impose irreparable harm,” Branch writes.
The lawsuit asks the court to deem Ohio’s ban on abortion clinic partnerships with public hospitals as unconstitutional and also asks the federal court to require the University of Cincinnati Medical Center to re-instate the transfer agreement.
Hospital officials were forced to end the contract with the abortion clinic because the medical center sits on city- and state-owned land, making it a public hospital, said spokeswoman Diana Lara.
“Our hands are tied,” Lara said. “This is more of an issue between Planned Parenthood and the state.”
Also at risk for closure is the Dayton area’s last clinic, called Women’s Med Center in Kettering, which doesn’t have a transfer agreement either. The owners of the Kettering clinic put a stop to abortion surgeries at their Greater Cincinnati clinic, located in Sharonville, earlier this year, after a legal battle with the state over the transfer agreement laws.
“The closest clinic, Women’s Med Center in (Kettering), is already having difficulty meeting the increased demand for its services from the closure of the (Sharonville clinic), and lacks the capacity to serve the additional patients presently served by Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio,” the lawsuit reads.
State health officials and the attorney representing the abortion clinic declined to comment Tuesday on the pending litigation.
The leader of the state’s largest pro-life movement, Ohio Right to Life, called Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit a “frivolous” and “desperate” attempt to remain open, while operating outside of the state law.
“Any woman in Ohio can travel less than two hours from their home to have an abortion,” said Mike Gonidakis, the president of the organization.
He added that the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 1973 ruling in the landmark Roe v. Wade case, which ruled state laws banning abortion as unconstitutional, doesn’t promise women close proximity to such facilities.
“Roe v. Wade did not guarantee an abortion clinic on every street corner,” he said.
But pro-choice organizers say the state’s regulation is a veiled attempt to make sure women can’t get abortions in Ohio.
“This law was clearly intended to close abortion clinics,” said Kellie Copeland, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio. “It’s a backdoor way to outlaw abortion.”
Eight abortion clinics remain in the state of Ohio; six have closed either voluntarily or under state orders since Gov. John Kasich took office in 2011.
This newspaper’s exclusive investigations also found the state has cited and shuttered more abortion clinics under Kasich’s leadership than any other time in the last decade, including under Republican Gov. Bob Taft.