As clinics say they will proceed undeterred, the fight over what constitutes essential care in Ohio could be the first of many as more states heed the U.S. government’s calls for hospitals to suspend unneeded operations and as doctors and nurses warn they’re running out of masks, gowns and drugs.
Advocates see the latest limits on abortions as part of a long-standing political agenda, pointing to conservative Ohio lawmakers’ past efforts to restrict abortions amid a wave of red-state legislation repeatedly blocked by the courts. A federal judge last summer halted Ohio’s “heartbeat” bill banning abortion after detection of the fetal pulse typically found about six weeks into pregnancy.
“People should not push ideological agendas that interfere with the doctor-patient relationship. Period,” Kellie Copeland, executive director of the advocacy organization NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, told The Washington Post on Saturday. “But especially not right now, not during a pandemic.”
People choose to end pregnancies for a host of reasons, including financial strain, health problems and an inability to work, Copeland said. She warned that blocking many abortions as “nonessential” or “elective” surgeries just as the coronavirus upends lives could have long-lasting consequences.
“I just think that’s reckless, to put care even further away from people,” she said.
In letters to clinics, Deputy Attorney General Jonathan Fulkerson framed the crackdown as a necessary measure amid a public health crisis that’s drawn dire warnings from Ohio leaders. Gov. Mike DeWine (R) has led the way with dramatic policies — shutdowns of schools, restaurants, bars and more — to curb the virus that has infected hundreds and killed three people in the state. Officials around the country fear the pandemic will become far deadlier if strained systems grow overwhelmed.
“This is an unprecedented time in the state’s history, and everyone must do their part to help stop the spread of this disease,” Fulkerson wrote, warning the department of health will “take all appropriate measures” if providers don’t fall in line.
A spokeswoman for Yost, Bethany McCorkle, declined to comment on criticisms of the stance toward abortions and said letters have been sent only to facilities that the health department received complaints about. On Saturday, the attorney general’s office also wrote to a urology organization warning them to stop performing elective surgeries, McCorkle said.
She said all of the letters were issued to comply with the state health department’s March 17 order to cancel all “nonessential or elective surgeries and procedures” that use personal protective equipment. The order, which took effect Wednesday, is meant “to preserve PPE for health care providers who are battling the COVID-19 pandemic that is spreading in our state and also to preserve critical hospital capacity and resources,” Fulkerson wrote.
The Ohio health department did not immediately respond to an inquiry. Its March 17 order outlines criteria for determining essential procedures, including “threat to the patient’s life,” “threat of permanent dysfunction of an extremity or organ system” and “risk of rapidly worsening to severe symptoms” if a surgery is not performed.
The attorney general’s office issued orders on abortions to three facilities as of Saturday afternoon: Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio’s Cincinnati surgery center and Women’s Med Center in Dayton on Friday and Preterm in Cleveland on Saturday. The letters, first reported by the Columbus Dispatch, tell clinics to “immediately stop” surgical abortions that “can be delayed without undue risk to the current or future health of a patient.”
Planned Parenthood leaders in Ohio echoed national medical groups in a statement Saturday, calling abortion “an essential, time-sensitive medical procedure.” Iris E. Harvey and Kersha Deibel, who lead Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio and Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region, respectively, said the latter group’s attorney has assured the attorney general it is “complying” with the order halting nonessential surgeries.
“Under that order, Planned Parenthood can still continue providing essential procedures, including surgical abortion,” wrote Harvey and Deibel, emphasizing their “doors remain open for this care” and that they are working to “conserve needed resources.”
Preterm executive director Chrisse France also said in a statement that her facility is “continuing to provide the full range of abortion care services because it is an essential procedure,” while also asserting Preterm is in “full compliance” with the health department’s order.
“During a public health crisis like this, policymakers’ number one priority should be making sure everyone can get the health care they need safely, not actively working to deny our neighbors timely and vital health care services — including and especially abortion care,” France wrote.
McCorkle did not immediately say whether the attorney general or other officials are planning to take further action against Planned Parenthood or other providers. The antiabortion group Ohio Right to Life on Friday posted a letter to a regional Planned Parenthood saying it was flouting the new rules and that its continued abortions endangered Ohioans.
The Washington Post was unable to reach staff at Women’s Med Center.
An earlier joint statement from eight groups, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology, argued that abortion is “a time-sensitive service for which a delay of several weeks, or in some cases days, may increase the risks or potentially make it completely inaccessible.”
“The consequences of being unable to obtain an abortion profoundly impact a person’s life, health, and well-being,” the organizations wrote.