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Ohio health agency staffer fired after abortion pill mention in newsletter

The overturn of Roe v. Wade is bringing more attention to the abortion pill, which has become one of the most accessible methods for abortion. (Video: The Washington Post)
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When she came across a training opportunity for mifepristone, a drug used in early pregnancy loss and abortions, Jessica Warner put a mention of it in the May edition of the newsletter she compiled as a coordinator at the Ohio Department of Health.

An hour after she hit send, her supervisor called. It was the start of an ordeal that culminated in Warner, a sexually transmitted infections and viral hepatitis training coordinator, being fired and two other employees disciplined. An investigative report prepared by human resources described abortion topics as “off limits,” adding that “the mifepristone item in the newsletter is in direct conflict with the agency’s mission and is an embarrassment to ODH.” It also said the topic was “contrary” to the state’s mission.

That a state health department would take such a stance, Warner said, came as a shock.

“I want people to understand how it seems like politics is taking over health care, and it’s less about the science and the evidence,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday, five days after her termination. “And it seems more it’s about people who have no background in health care who are making our decisions and even censoring and silencing us.”

The most common abortion procedures and when they occur

Ohio Department of Health spokesman Ken Gordon said there is no policy that keeps abortion topics off limits. He said references to abortion as being in conflict with the health department’s mission are based on a state law that took in effect in 2019, barring the department from contracting or affiliating with “any entity that performs or promotes nontherapeutic abortions.”

Warner’s supervisor received a suspension and her supervisor’s supervisor resigned, according to the Ohio Capital Journal, which was first to report the incident.

The fallout comes as the nation braces for the potential reversal of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that enshrined a right to abortion across the United States. With a draft opinion indicating justices have voted to strike it down, conservative states are racing to enact bans and restrictions that have been unenforceable for nearly 50 years.

But the national right to an abortion currently remains in place, raising questions about the state health department’s apparent antiabortion position. The Capital Journal reported that two bipartisan leaders of the Ohio House Health Committee, along with lobbyists on both sides of the issue, were unaware the agency had a formal stance.

Gordon said Warner’s firing was “primarily based on a pattern of repeated insubordinate activity rather than any single topic or incident.” He added that the HR investigation found her newsletter did not go through editorial review as required by department policy.

The newsletter was sent to about 400 subscribers including local health departments and community organizations, most of whom were involved in the HIV and sexually transmitted infection work and in public health. It included resources, program updates and information on STI cases and rates in Ohio.

The investigative report, shared with The Post by Warner and the health department, flagged newsletter content beyond the abortion pill: mentions of National Masturbation Month; LGBT Elders Day; International Day Against Homophobia; Pansexual and Panromantic Visibility Day; SLAM (Sexuality, Liberators and Movers); and event titled “Black and Blue: Suicide in our own leather, kink and queer communities”; and National Condom Month.

Warner, hired in 2019, argued that the department could not focus on reduction in sexually transmitted infections without acknowledging sexuality. She said research shows a more positive approach is more effective than a risk focus, and noted Ohio is experiencing rising cases of syphilis and other STIs.

“My program would have given people skills and resources for that, and that was viewed as controversial,” said Warner, 36.

Much of the investigative report focused on the May 6 newsletter item about mifepristone. The newsletter said applications were due May 15 for the training, called ExPAND Mifepristone. The program is run by the University of Chicago and billed as being “developed to support evidence-based use of mifepristone for early pregnancy loss (EPL) and/or abortion in primary care settings.” Warner said she included it because she thought local health department staffers might be interested in it.

Her supervisor said she should have known better.

“Everyone in the unit should have known that any reference to abortions should not be discussed or included in the newsletter or other unit information,” Warner’s supervisor told HR investigators, describing her as “an advocate.”

With Roe v. Wade overturned, the legality of abortion has been left to the states. Some worry that access to certain types of contraception could be next. (Video: Julie Yoon, Hadley Green, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

The latest action on abortion legislation across the states

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) in 2019 signed a bill outlawing abortions six weeks into pregnancy — one of the nation’s most restrictive laws. A federal judge blocked it as unconstitutional under Roe.

“Ohio is a pro-life state,” DeWine told WLWT5 last month, adding that he will look into passing more legislation if Roe is overturned.

At her supervisor’s request, Warner sent out a “corrected” version two hours after the newsletter went out, this one with the mifepristone piece deleted. According to the Ohio Department of Health, a local health commissioner contacted a state health department staffer with questions about it, triggering the investigation of whether the newsletter topics were properly vetted and appropriate.

Warner was “unapologetic” when interviewed by HR, the report said. She told investigators the health department was banned from working with Planned Parenthood “because it seems politicians’ ignorance and opinions get in the way of providing access to necessary healthcare for Ohioans.”

Asked whether the topic of mifepristone went against the mission of the state and health department, she responded, “I would hope not, it is a public health issue and as public health workers, it would be counterproductive to ODH’s mission to not support healthcare initiatives.”

She told The Post she plans to fight her firing.