By Nicole Hennessy
For the first time in Ohio history, rape crisis centers, which previously survived on corporate, private, foundation and federal funding,will be allocated $1 million per year of the state budget once it goes into effect this fall, provided they don’t discuss clients’ options regarding abortion.
In addition to what many are calling a “gag order” on counselors are some of the toughest anti-abortion provisions in the country, including the virtual defunding of family planning and women’s health centers and public hospitals that provide abortions or enter into written agreements with abortion centers to accept their patients in case of emergency.
As clinics must have such agreements in place as a condition of their licenses, many fear they will have no viable way to stay open. Nonprofit clinics like Planned Parenthood, which has a Rocky River branch, provide free screenings and contraception to low-income clients. And it is feared the standard of reproductive health care for Ohio women will be diminished, and that the rate of unplanned pregnancies, breast and cervical cancer not caught early will increase.
Also, physicians who fail to test for a fetal heartbeat and provide statistical likelihood that a fetus will be carried to term, regardless of a women’s wishes to go ahead with these procedures, will now face a fourth degree felony carrying a sentence of up to 18 months. However, unlike the previously failed “heart beat bill,” the new legislation does not make abortion illegal once the fetal heartbeat is detected.
HB 108, the original stand-alone bill outlining the new legislation, introduced by Rep. Nan Baker and Rep. Kirk Schuring, passed unanimously on June 16, leading some democratic politicians, like Lakewood Rep. Nikki Antonio, to speak out, claiming they had been lead to believe that some of the harsh anti-abortion language would be changed in the Senate version.
After the vote, Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis, on behalf of the organization, wrote a letter addressed to multiple legislators, including Rep. Antonio.
“We applaud the fact that each and every Democrat present voted for such an important and life-saving initiative,” the letters read.
“Out of respect for your courage, please know that Ohio Right to Life will help you defend your pro-life vote on SUB. HB 108 against false claims by critics of ‘a gag that punishes rape counselors from discussing all health options.”
Finally Gonidakis, who was appointed by Gov. John Kasich to the state’s medical board in 2012, thanked the legislators for voting to save lives.
In addition to the $2 million in funding, rape crisis centers gained representation on the State Victims Assistance Advisory Council. The bill also requires each person who registers as a sex offender or child-victim offender to pay a $100 fee, to be deposited into the Rape Crisis Program Trust Fund administered by the State Attorney General, as well as a court-mandated fee of $50 to $500.
For a state with rape crisis programs provided in less than half of its 88 counties and a string of recent sexual assault and abuse cases making national headlines, these victories, regardless of the strings attached, are seen as necessary steps by some.
Sondra Miller, interim executive director of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center (CRCC), said, “We did encourage the House and the Senate and the governor to sign the bill.” She also commented that funding was the most important issue to consider at the time.
“The language in the bill says that in order to be eligible for the funding, we cannot refer for ‘genetic services’ or something to that effect,” Miller added. “So, we’re still trying to figure out what that really means, and we do not believe that this will impact the services that we provide.”
The Ohio Department of Health (ODH) defines its genetic services program as a state-funded network of genetic centers that provide services to people affected with, or at risk for various disorders. Services listed by the department include, “but are not limited to genetic counseling, education, diagnosis and treatment for all genetic conditions and congenital abnormalities.”
Further, the Ohio Revised Code states that genetic services funds cannot be used to counsel or refer for an abortion, except in medical emergency.
Kellie Copeland, executive director of the NARAL (National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League ) Pro-Choice Ohio, who also mentioned the term ‘abortion’ was absent from the bill, fears women in crisis situations will be deprived complete and accurate information as a result of the new provisions.
“When a woman is sexually assaulted, her choices are taken away from her, and having information and being able to make her own health care choices is part of the healing process; it’s part of taking back control of her life,” Copeland said. “Regardless of what choice she makes, it’s important that she has all her options explained.”
She added that NARAL is busy combing the legislation to see if legal action could be taken against the state, and Cuyahoga County Executive, Ed FitzGerald, who’s announced his plan to run against Gov. Kasich next year, is calling for the budget’s anti-abortion provisions to be added to the November ballot, worried they may limit freedom of speech.
Still, with just a few months for the CRCC and other Ohio organizations, health centers and abortion clinics to navigate how, or if, they can operate under these new standards, Gonidakis remains confident that the pro-life provisions in the budget will give women more access to services, resources and information that will “help them keep their babies and raise healthy children.”
NOTE: Baker and Antonio could not be reached for comment.