Updated: The State of Choice in Ohio: Lots of Roadblocks, But Also Some Victories Ahead

What is the state of reproductive health in Ohio? It's on shaky ground, but every anti-choice cloud has a silver lining.

Ohio has been through a lot in recent
years.  The state has been hard hit economically by the recession, and
unemployment skyrocketed into double digits in 2009.  Ohio is beginning to recover
financially, but one thing it may take longer to recover from is the profusion
of anti-choice laws passed within the last year.  Women and families
already suffering due to the economic downturn are finding themselves in even
more difficult circumstances once anti-choice politicians put cutting off
access to basic reproductive health care ahead of caring for the needy.

Access to reproductive health is an important public health issue. According to
NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, in 2009 half
of all pregnancies in the state were unplanned, and 40 percent of unplanned
pregnancies ended in abortion. Twenty-five percent of all adolescent girls
had a sexually transmitted disease and 16,000 teenage girls gave birth last
year.  Ohio ranks 25th in the country in teen pregnancy rates, a rate that
has increased by 3 percent every year since 2005.

Of course, it’s hard to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies when the
state ranks 48th in the nation for access to contraception. Should a woman have unprotected sex and wish
to avoid pregnancy, she won’t find easy access to emergency contraception as
one-third of pharmacies in the state do not stock  it.  If she then decides she wants an abortion, she had
better hope she lives in or near one of the six cities that have abortion
providers, since she will have to come in, receive legislatively-mandated "consent" information, then leave and return again 24 hours later.

One thing that has kept the anti-choice activists from gaining even more ground
is the state’s governor, Ted Strickland.  As the first pro-choice governor
in Ohio since 1991, Gov. Strickland has been vetoing
anti-choice legislation
, such as the
law passed in 2007 to limit the use of RU 486.  He also eliminated
$500,000 in abstinence-only education funds from the budget that same
year.  This year, Strickland did a line item veto on a provision
prohibiting the funding of stem cell research, much to the chagrin of anti-choice activists.

Perhaps the biggest victory for those who
support women’s access to reproductive health care is the introduction of the
Ohio Prevention First Act. This legislation requires insurance companies to
cover contraception at the same rate as it would other prescriptions, requires
that sex education taught in schools be medically accurate and contain
information on both contraception and sexually transmitted diseases, creates a
task force focused on the high rate of teen pregnancy, forces hospitals to
provide victims of rape and sexual assault with emergency contraception, and
rules that pharmacists must stock and fill orders for contraceptives without
opting out due to "conscience" issues.

"Prevention-First legislation enabled us to be in a proactive stand, which
was both exciting and quite unusual," said Wendy Leatherberry, a
non-profit consultant active in the pro-choice movement in Ohio.

Other victories include shooting down some more outrageous roadblock bills such
as the "paternal consent" bill introduced by State Rep. John Adams,
R-Sidney.  The bill, which gained little traction in the legislature,
would have required women to obtain permission from the biological father
before having an abortion, and, in cases of more than one partner, the woman
must provide a full list of men with whom she had sex.  Women who lied
about the identify of the potential father or doctors who aborted without
permission from the father would be prosecuted.

"People are very comfortable in the anti-choice world, bolder and more
comfortable with their position of preventing women from getting
abortions," stated Leatherberry.

Ironically, the fate of reproductive health services in Ohio is unclear, but
not because of well-funded anti-choice groups in the state.  The 2010
election will determine who is in charge of realigning the legislative
districts.  Although a vast majority of Ohioans believe in sex ed in
school and more access to contraception, and a small amount more identify as
strongly/somewhat pro choice than strongly/somewhat pro-life, nearly two-thirds
of Ohio’s state senate and over half of its state house is anti or mixed
choice, regardless of party.

Ohio pro-choice advocates underscore that gerrymandering is responsible for the
large number of anti-choice elected officials, a factor they hope can be
changed during the next redistricting.  However, Jennifer Garrison, the state Democratic
Party’s leading candidate
for Secretary of State, who, if elected would be highly influential in the
redistricting process, was also anti-choice, believing abortion should only be
allowed in cases of rape or due to threats to a mother’s health.
Garrison has now left the race, citing too much focus on her anti-choice stance.  Instead, county clerk Maryellen O’Shaughnessy will be filing to run for the party nomination, with the support of Gov. Strickland. Current
Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, who is pro-choice, is leaving
the position to run for Ohio’s open senate seat
.  Anti-choice forces in the state have
made it clear that they are focusing on even more races, recently
releasing their slate of 2010 pro-life endorsed candidates

So with a surge of anti-choice activists from both parties hoping to strengthen
their hold on the legislature and with numerous state-based anti-choice groups
beginning to fight among themselves for donations, Ohio will continue to be a
hotbed of activity throughout the year.

UPDATED to reflect the recent changes in the race for the office of Secretary of State.