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Until early this month, pro-life activists kept this balloon outside the Ohio statehouse, hoping to persuade senators to pass an extremely restrictive abortion bill. (Ann Sanner/AP)

Abortion Wars

Will Ohio Find Its Wendy Davis?

Days after Texas’s epic filibuster, Ohio state legislators are voting on their own anti-abortion bill. Michelle Goldberg reports on why this one will be harder to stop.

State-level abortion battles are a bit like a game of whack-a-mole—even if one is defeated, another immediately pops up somewhere else. So even as feminists celebrate victory over Texas’s wide-ranging anti-abortion bill, pro-choice activists in Ohio are gearing up for their own protests against sweeping new anti-abortion legislation, hoping to capitalize on the momentum created by Wendy Davis’s epic filibuster.

“This bill that we defeated in Texas was part of a much bigger narrative,” says Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, who was just off a plane from Austin. “This opposition had been growing for months with the attacks on Planned Parenthood, the closing of women’s health centers, a whole series of events that just hit the tipping point and really lit a fuse in the state of Texas. This wasn’t just an isolated incident or isolated piece of legislation.”

Indeed, on Thursday morning, Ohio state legislators will have a final vote on a budget bill packed with anti-abortion amendments. Among other things, it could close down four of Ohio’s 12 clinics, impose mandatory ultrasounds on women seeking abortion, and defund Planned Parenthood. It will make it harder for women to get a medical-emergency exemption to the state’s 24-hour waiting period for abortions and will transfer money from welfare programs for poor families to anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers. If, as expected, it passes, Republican Gov. John Kasich will have until Sunday to sign it. Meanwhile, a separate omnibus abortion bill, the Ultrasound Access Act, was recently introduced in the Ohio House, though it likely won’t move until the fall.

The latter bill—described by an Atlantic writer as perhaps “the biggest and baddest piece of anti-abortion legislation to make its way through the laboratories of democracy yet”—has a number of bizarre provisions, including one that forces doctors to tell patients exactly how much they earn from abortions. But while it might overshadow the attack on reproductive rights in the budget bill, that doesn’t mean the budget bill isn’t plenty extreme itself.

To start with, there’s the sneaky two-step process it’s using to try and regulate abortion clinics out of existence. First, it includes a provision mandating that all clinics have agreements with hospitals allowing them to transfer patients if something goes wrong. That’s something often seen in anti-abortion legislation, including the bill defeated in Texas. But in a twist, the Ohio bill also bans public hospitals from entering into such agreements with clinics. According to Jaime Miracle, policy director at NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, this catch-22 will lead to the closure of at least three clinics that don’t have access to private hospitals willing to work with them. Depending on how hospitals involved with public-private partnerships are defined, a fourth clinic in Cincinnati could be threatened as well. That would leave the entire western half of the state without an abortion provider.

There’s also a mandatory ultrasound provision, which was slipped into the bill at the last minute on Tuesday. Ohio legislators learned from the uproar over forced vaginal ultrasounds in Virginia and are requiring abdominal scans only to search for a fetal heartbeat. But they’ve included no exemption for rape victims. There’s also language ordering doctors to tell women that once a heartbeat is found, her pregnancy has a 95 percent chance of survival, which seems to apply even if the pregnancy in question has complications that make coming to term less likely. This seems especially cruel in cases of wanted pregnancies with severe fetal anomalies.

Then there’s the benign-sounding “New Pregnancy and Parenting Support Program,” which redirects funds from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families—the program that provides cash payments to poor parents and children—to anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers. How much is up to the state’s director of jobs and family services: “He could take the entire TANF block grant if he wanted to,” says Miracle.

Pro-choice protesters will be gathering at the statehouse on Thursday morning in advance of the vote. Unlike Texas, Ohio doesn’t have the filibuster, so there’s no opportunity for a brave lawmaker to try and repeat Davis’s performance. But Ohio does have a line-item veto, and so activists are doing everything they can to urge Governor Kasich to strike out the abortion restrictions. He is, of course, an anti-abortion Republican and, as of Tuesday afternoon, he’d refused to comment on the possibility of a veto. Nevertheless, pro-choice forces are clinging to the possibility that he’ll fear being cast as an aggressor in the war on women. “The only thing that can happen to stop this is the governor realizing it’s too much of a liability,” says Miracle.

That’s unlikely, but so was a pro-choice win in Texas. “Maybe that will be the shot across the bow that stops more stuff from happening,” Miracle says. “You’ve got to have a little bit of hope.”

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