The Ohio legislature moved Wednesday to cut off $1.3 million in public health grants to Planned Parenthood in a closely watched vote that could have repercussions for the surging presidential campaign of Gov. John Kasich (R).
While it could complicate his efforts to cast himself as a centrist, it could also boost his credibility with social conservatives heading into the South Carolina primary later this month.
The measure had been a top priority of antiabortion activists in the state. The effort to strip Planned Parenthood of government funding got a boost last summer, after antiabortion activists released covertly filmed video purporting to show that the women's health organization and abortion provider illegally sold fetal tissue for a profit.
Planned Parenthood supporters have criticized the videos as deceptively edited, and multiple state investigations have so far turned up no wrongdoing on the part of the organization. Last month, a Texas grand jury indicted the filmmakers, saying they illegally used forged documents as part of their ruse.
Still, more than half a dozen states have tried to cut off Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood in the wake of the videos. Most of those efforts have been blocked by the courts.
The Ohio bill is different in that it targets state and federal programs addressing HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, infant mortality and other problems. Planned Parenthood receives a large percentage of that money every year to administer the programs across the state. Under the new bill, the organization would be barred from administering those programs because of its role as an abortion provider.
A Kasich spokesman said the governor plans to sign the bill, calling it a fiscally responsible move.
“Since taking office, Governor Kasich has worked with legislative leaders to ensure that public dollars are used to their best purpose,” spokesman Joe Andrews said in a statement. “The Ohio Department of Health had already stopped awarding state dollars to Planned Parenthood and they were kicked to the back of the line for the federal government’s family planning grants that the department administers. This bill further reinforces Ohio’s policies.”
The funding cut would not force any Planned Parenthood health centers to close their doors. But Planned Parenthood officials said the cuts would harm women, many of them poor, who rely on the group for services. They cited the experience of an Indiana county where HIV infections surged after several clinics that provided HIV testing were shuttered. And they noted Ohio's high infant-mortality rate among African Americans.
“We’ve seen the dire consequences for women, men and young people when politicians block access to care at Planned Parenthood health centers,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, said in a statement. “It’s time for political games to end — and for Governor Kasich to veto this bill so Ohioans don’t lose vital care.”
Also Wednesday, an Ohio-based nonprofit group that supports Planned Parenthood announced an online ad buy attacking Kasich. The campaign includes a video titled “Why Won’t John Kasich Stand Up for Women’s Health?”
The national political arm of Planned Parenthood has endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton for president. The group has characterized Kasich as one of the most antiabortion governors in the country.
Antiabortion activists would not disagree with that description.
“We have the most pro-life governor in this [presidential] race right now,” said Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, which opposes abortion rights. “If the life issue is the number one issue determining who you will support on the Republican presidential ticket, there’s no better candidate than John Kasich.”
The anti-Planned Parenthood bill is Gonidakis’s group’s top priority for this legislative session, and he credited Kasich with creating an environment that cleared the way for its passage. He said Kasich has signed 16 initiatives put forward by his organization that have helped force many abortion clinics in the state to close.
Gonidakis said that the measure will help Ohio women by breaking the lock Planned Parenthood has on state and federal dollars. He said that would give other clinics a chance to gain access to that money, including those that operate in the underserved Appalachian region of the state.
Other groups had also lobbied against the bill, including the health department of Columbus, the state capital. City officials said they were particularly concerned about the provision barring grant recipients from having relationships with organizations that “promote” abortion, which they said could extend to hospitals and health insurance companies.
“We’ll be looking to the Ohio Department of Health to see how they officially interpret the legislation and what sort of onus they are going to put on local health departments to ensure that we don’t have a relationship with groups that promote abortion,” said Kelli Arthur Hykes, director of public health policy for Columbus Public Health.