A Fiercely Anti-Choice Ohio GOP Redefines "Pregnancy" to Mean "Not-Pregnancy"

Last night, Ohio Governor John Kasich took a little time from his weekend to sign a new $65 billion budget for the state. There are many moving parts to the law, including a $2.5 billion tax cut which—like most Republican tax cuts—is meant to help the rich at the expense of everyone else. But of those parts, the most relevant for discussion—given last week’s fiasco in the Texas Senate—are the new restrictions on all reproductive services.

In addition to slashing tax burdens on the wealthiest Ohioans, the budget measure signed yesterday would allocate federal funds away from Planned Parenthood—which uses them to provide contraception and other health services, not abortion—to crisis pregnancy centers, which claim to offer support, counseling and a full range of options for women who think they may be pregnant. In reality, they are overtly anti-abortion. “[A]ccording to personal accounts compiled by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL),” notes the Guttmacher Institute, “once women are inside the office, counselors subject them to antiabortion propaganda, characterizing abortion as painful and life threatening, with long-lasting physical and psychological consequences.” While the psychological impact of abortion varies from woman to woman, in terms of medical safety, abortion ranks on the low end of risky procedures. CPC’s also discourage use of contraceptives like the morning-after pill, which are presented as abortion equivalents.

The Ohio law also requires doctors to give a verbal description of the ultrasound, including a fetal heartbeat if available. It compels abortion providers to tell patients that a fetus can feel pain and that a woman who has an abortion can increase her risk for breast cancer. This claim, touted frequently by anti-abortion activists, has little basis in fact. “The scientific evidence,” notes the American Cancer Society, “does not support the notion that abortion of any kind raises the risk of breast cancer or any other type of cancer.”

The law also redefines “pregnancy” and “fetus” in ways that could affect the availability of certain forms of birth control. Ohio Republicans have defined as “human offspring developing during pregnancy from the moment of conception and includes the embryonic stage of development,” and declared pregnancy as beginning with “fertilization.” Biological science, by contrast, defines pregnancy as beginning with the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterine lining. Why? Because a fertilized egg isn’t guaranteed to become an embryo; it can fail to implant and be expelled by the body. 

There are also explicit restrictions to abortion access, as well as new requirements for doctors who perform them. Abortion providers are banned from having transfer agreements with public hospitals. Given that clinics are required to have transfer agreements, this could cause the closure of some clinics, and otherwise hamper access to reproductive health services. What’s more, the waiting period for abortions is extended from 24 hours to 48 hours, and the law would also eliminate “medical necessity” as a reason to waive the waiting period, replacing it with a waiver for “medical emergency.”

The difference, as the Cleveland Plain Dealer notes, is that the former is defined “as a medical condition that complicates the pregnancy so that it warrants an immediate abortion,” while the latter is “a condition that would result in the woman’s death without an abortion.” In practical terms, a necessity is a state of urgency where you may need an abortion in the future, whereas an emergency is where you need one now. It doesn’t seem like a big change, but it could have major implications, especially when coupled with the new penalties for violating these restrictions.

A doctor who does could be charged with a first-degree felony and a fine of up to $1 million—penalties normally reserved for rape, murder, attempted murder, and aggravated robbery (among others). We have no idea how many doctors will hesitate or refuse to perform abortions under serious circumstances, but my guess is that it will be more than a few, with serious consequences for women’s health.

As with the proposed law in Texas, it’s hard to describe these measures as anything other than backdoor attempts at making abortion unavailable in Ohio, through harsh restrictions, new regulations, or the legal intimidation.

Yesterday, on Meet the Press, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that there was “currently an assault on women’s health” and that “women’s health was in danger.” She’s absolutely right. Since the 2010 midterm elections—when Republicans swept statehouses and governorships across the country—there’s been a concerted push to deny women access to the wide array of reproductive health services.

On one hand, there’s a refreshing clarity about these efforts. Conservative lawmakers have all but dispensed with attempts to sound moderate, arguing that rape exceptions are unnecessary, and pushing for proposals—like defunding Planned Parenthood and limiting sex education—that would increase the rate of unplanned pregnancies (and thus abortions).

Of course, the only reason Republicans have become so open about this is because—on the whole—they are winning this fight.