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Cincinnati Abortion Clinic Closes, Leaving Access 'Severely Endangered' In Region

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JOHN KASICH
Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and the Ohio state legislature have enacted laws that are slowly forcing the state's abortion providers to close. (Tony Dejak) | ASSOCIATED PRESS

While Texas lawmakers are passing sweeping laws that shut down multiple abortion providers at a time, Ohio is taking a quieter but potentially more effective approach to cutting off access to safe and legal abortion.

Women's Med, one of two abortion providers in Cincinnati, announced on Wednesday that it must stop providing abortions due to a combination of state laws that makes it impossible for most providers to keep their licenses. Current Ohio law requires an abortion clinic to have a transfer agreement with a local hospital in case of emergencies, but Gov. John Kasich (R) signed a budget in 2013 that includes a provision barring public hospitals from granting transfer agreements to abortion providers.

One by one, all of the other clinics in the western half of the state are expected to follow suit -- but not all at once. Abortion providers and women's health advocates believe Kasich and the anti-abortion state legislature are trying to shut down clinics slowly, in a way that avoids the national spotlight and major federal lawsuits.

“Abortion access is now severely endangered for Cincinnati area women with only one provider remaining. This sole provider is also soon to be closed if Governor Kasich has his way," Valerie Haskell, a spokeswoman for Women's Med, said in a written statement. Valerie Haskell co-owns the clinic with her husband, Martin Haskell, a doctor who provides abortions. “The Governor’s agenda is to methodically close each abortion provider one by one (hoping no one will notice) until it is impossible to get an abortion anywhere in Ohio."

Renée Paradis, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said closing clinics slowly over time is a smart anti-abortion strategy because it makes it hard for groups to claim in a federal lawsuit that the new law has had a drastic effect on abortion access in the state.

"Unlike Texas, where all the clinics close in one fell swoop, in Ohio they're closing one by one. So it's difficult to make a case that this is a problem until it's too late, because each individual clinic has to stand or fall alone," she told The Huffington Post. "The 'death by a thousand cuts' model is what's going to happen to the women in Ohio."

According to the clinic, it has had zero patient deaths in its 35 years of operation, and has a 0.3 percent complication rate, making it "one of the safest surgical providers in Ohio across all specialties." But Martin Haskell has become a target of the anti-abortion community because he is one of the only doctors in the Cincinnati tri-state area who provides abortions after 18 weeks, in cases of high-risk pregnancies and fetal anomalies.

“Shutting down Haskell’s facility is a long-sought victory for the pro-life movement,” Stephanie Krider, executive director of Ohio Right to Life, said in a statement. “As the self-proclaimed ‘poster child’ of partial birth abortion, Martin Haskell has endangered southwest Ohio children for the last 30 years."

Women's Med has been battling the state for the past year to stay open. The clinic in 2013 applied for a transfer agreement at a local private hospital, since public hospitals are barred from cooperating with abortion providers, but the hospital denied the request, citing the hospital's own "ownership and leasehold interests." The clinic later made an agreement with the Ohio Department of Health that it would have a "back-up" doctor that had a transfer agreement with a hospital, but the department rescinded that agreement earlier this year and ordered the clinic to close.

Women's Med appealed the health department's decision in July, but a county judge decided last week not to overturn the order. The clinic must now immediately stop providing abortions -- but Valerie Haskell said it would remain open in order to provide initial consultations for women seeking abortions, thus helping them meet the state's 24-hour waiting period required before the procedure.

“Although the governor has created an elaborate and expensive obstacle course for women who choose to exercise their legal right to an abortion, we will do everything we can to accommodate these women,” Valerie Haskell said. "We intend to see patients for the first day of their two day procedure in Cincinnati. Then, they will have to travel to Dayton for the actual surgery. We understand that this imposes a great financial burden on many of our patients, half of whom fall at or below the Federal poverty level.”

None of the other providers in the western half of the state -- one each in Cincinnati, Dayton and Toledo -- currently has a transfer agreement with an Ohio hospital, leaving them at risk of closing soon. Two of them are waiting to hear back from the health department on their applications for licenses, and the Toledo clinic is suing the state over the law preventing public hospitals from having transfer agreements with abortion providers.

Abortion providers in the eastern half of the state were more easily able to secure transfer agreements with private hospitals because the region is more politically friendly to abortion rights. But Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, warns that when the last remaining clinic closes in Cincinnati, it will be "the largest metropolitan area in America without an abortion provider."

“Let’s be clear, this clinic closure is not about women’s health and safety," Copeland said. "It is politics at its worst."

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