Ohio’s abortion bill is proof that even political moderates can be extremely anti-women

Not so genial after all.
Not so genial after all.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Ohio is supposed to be the land of moderation. It’s a swing state that has gone with the winner of every presidential election in recent memory. Its ideological layout features large, diverse, Democratic cities surrounded by wide, white Republican swaths of rural land, which more or less tend to balance each other out. And it’s governed by Mr. Moderation himself: John Kasich, the gee-shucks, sweater-clad 1950s sitcom dad who supposedly represents all that is reasonable within the Republican party. Kasich is has so much approval from centrists on the left and right that, as per a recent Politico article, he’s the preferred choice of Democratic electoral college members who refuse to vote for Trump.

And yet, on Dec. 7, Ohio became the first state in the union to pass a bill that will ban abortions after six weeks. Kasich has 10 days to veto the legislation; if he signs it or does nothing, it will become law. This dire situation should make us all rethink what “moderation” really means in the current political climate—in which it’s apparently possible to claim a centrist position while completely writing off the lives of women and trans people.

Make no mistake: Should the so-called “Heartbeat Bill” become law, abortion will be effectively illegal in Ohio. It is written to ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detectable, which typically happens at around week six of a pregnancy. To those unfamiliar with OB/GYN jargon, that might sound as if a patient still has over a month to safely end a pregnancy. But in fact, pregnancy dates from the last menstrual period before conception—meaning that by the time a patient notices that her period is late, she’s already hit week four or five. Many women reach the all-important six-week mark before they even take a pregnancy test; others are unable to book a doctor’s appointment until eight or more weeks have passed. In either case, the result is the same: In the state of Ohio, almost anyone who asks for an abortion will be unable to get one, and anyone who can get an abortion won’t be able to ask. On top of everything else, the measure contains no exceptions for rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother; it’s not even clear whether women who miscarry would be able to get surgical procedures to prevent infection.

The bill would almost certainly be struck down as unconstitutional, should it be taken to court. Legally, states can specify time limits on abortion, but the earliest possible constitutional ban is set at 24 weeks, when the fetus becomes a candidate for viable birth. (The 24-week restriction, too, is unfair and unsafe—many major health concerns, including severe defects that would make it outright impossible for a fetus to survive outside the womb, can’t be detected until at least the 20th week of pregnancy.)

Several smart people, including MSNBC’s Irin Carmon, have suggested that the six-week ban is so draconian it has to be a feint—a bill that Kasich can veto in order to look “reasonable” when he then passes an equally unconstitutional 20-week ban that is also on the table.

But given what we know about Kasich and Ohio itself, the six-week ban isn’t actually that unrealistic. Without drawing any real national attention, Ohio—a state in which 35% of people identify as evangelical Christians—has become one of the more extreme anti-choice states in America. Although we’re conditioned to look for reproductive-rights horror stories in deep-red southern states like Texas or Mississippi, it’s Ohio, as per Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute, that has become “a testing ground for abortion restrictions” nationwide. And Kasich was not only the single worst Republican candidate of 2016 on reproductive rights, but has been called “if not the worst—among the worst of anti-choice governors in this country’s history” by the pro-choice organization NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio.

Back in 1995, Ohio was the first state to ban “partial birth” abortions, a procedure that is only performed in cases of extreme danger to the mother’s life. That ban, thanks to former president George W. Bush, is now national policy. Today, Ohio strips funding from rape crisis centers if they so much as mention abortion to the survivors they’re counseling. Ohio also mandates medically unnecessary ultrasounds and 24-hour waiting periods for all patients seeking an abortion, and requires parental consent for all patients under 18.

Three of those last four developments happened on Kasich’s watch. The state has also mandated unnecessary “transfer” agreements between abortion clinics and local hospitals, since 1996. In 2013, under Kasich, the state further cracked down by banning public hospitals from making said agreements, which has directly caused five of the state’s abortion clinics to shut down. In fact, during Kasich’s time in office, the number of clinics in Ohio has been sliced in half, from 16 to eight. Kasich is also responsible for Ohio’s already existing 20-week ban, which prohibits abortions unless the fetus cannot survive outside the womb. It was therefore too gentle and compassionate to prevent this year’s proposed 20-week ban, which bans all abortions after that date, unless the mother is literally about to die. And in 2016 alone, Ohio has also moved to strip all funding from Planned Parenthood and force women and trans people to bury or cremate aborted fetuses at their own expense.

The fact that those last two bills haven’t passed yet is no reason to relax. That overly draconian heartbeat bill? It’s been intermittently making its way through the Ohio legislature since early 2011. The bill was shot down twice in five years. Then, just this week, the “heartbeat” bill was snuck back into the mix, attached to an innocuous bipartisan child-protection bill, and rushed through the legislature in less than 10 hours. That was much too fast to draw media or activist fire. If history has shown us anything, it’s that, in Ohio, there’s no anti-choice move too extreme to be ruled out.

Given this history, how does Kasich retain his title as King of the Centrists—and why is Ohio’s bleak reproductive justice landscape not more widely known? The answer is pretty simple: Abortion is largely associated with women, and women’s issues are automatically boutique issues. So—like domestic and sexual violence, like equal pay, like gender identity, transition and the ability to use public bathrooms—reproductive rights are on the list of inessentials, something that Democrats can safely “compromise” away and Republicans can “compassionately” work to obliterate without damaging their wholesome aw-shucks Midwestern charm.

When it comes to abortion, there really is no such thing as a moderate stance. Either it’s legal, or it’s not. Any restriction will severely harm at least some women and trans people. And the very concept of allowing restrictions only means that Americans throughout the country will be vulnerable to an endless parade of efforts to reduce abortion access, until it is legal in name only.

Obviously, protest is still possible. Ohioans can call Kasich, or their representatives. They can back Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and other organizations willing to take these restrictions to court and overturn them before Trump stacks the Supreme Court with anti-choice judges. And we must act now. If we let politicians like Kasich continue to treat women as expendable, we won’t notice how close we are to losing all of our hard-won rights until it is too late.