A Conversation with Repro Rights Expert Professor Jessie Hill on the Future of Abortion
As we saw just a few weeks ago, Ohio lawmakers again took lameduck session hostage by prioritizing an anti-abortion agenda above all. This resulted in two new laws being signed by Governor DeWine, one which requires fetal abortion tissue to be buried or cremated and another that banned telemedicine abortions. However, it didn’t end there. House Bill 538, the “trigger ban” bill, which would instantly block abortion access if the U.S. Supreme Court rules to overturn Roe v. Wade, was also introduced, proposing that doctors administering abortion drugs and performing surgical abortions be charged with felonies.
This has forced Ohioans fighting for reproductive rights to keep one eye on the Ohio Statehouse with another on the Supreme Court, and for anyone following, the passage of these laws along with the appointment of yet another SCOTUS judge who is clearly anti-choice may seem like the future of abortion in Ohio – and across the nation – may seem abysmal. Exacerbating this is the fact that just this last week, a decision came down from SCOTUS, lifting a block on the in-person pickup requirement for medication abortion during the pandemic. It was a totally predictable 6-3 breakdown, leaving many to wonder if this is a sign of things to come.
However, that might not be the case. With a new General Assembly starting in January 2021, we and so many reproductive rights coalitions and activists are hoping this two-year legislative session will be less hostile to reproductive freedom. But that is yet to be seen.
We sat down with our Cooperating Attorney and nationally recognized reproductive rights expert, Jessie Hill, to discuss the state of abortion and reproductive rights in Ohio and the U.S. Jessie has often served as part of our legal team in our cases against anti-choice legislation in Ohio.
1. In your opinion, what makes this moment so crucial for reproductive rights in both, Ohio and the US?
This is an incredibly important moment for reproductive rights in the U.S. As a new Presidential administration takes over, we can be hopeful that new protections for reproductive autonomy will be adopted at the federal level. But at the same time, we are facing a new, 6-3 majority on the U.S. Supreme Court that is extremely hostile to abortion rights, and there is no question that Roe v. Wade is hanging by a thread. And in Ohio, there is a conservative supermajority in the legislature that is far to the right of the Ohio people as a whole on abortion and reproductive rights, and those legislators are bound and determined to control the bodies of women and pregnant people. So there is both reason to hope and reason to fear.
2. What do you think 2021 will look like for reproductive rights in Ohio?
Reproductive rights are sitting on a razor’s edge in Ohio right now. The legislature, enabled and supported by Governor Mike DeWine, has engaged in one assault after another on abortion rights. The lame duck session at the end of 2020 brought two significant abortion restrictions, adding to the dozens that have been passed in Ohio since 2010. In addition, the newly-appointed Director of the Ohio Department of Health is an anti-abortion attorney with no public health experience. That our Governor saw fit to appoint this person to such a crucial position in the middle of a pandemic speaks volumes about this administration’s priorities. It isn’t a pretty picture.
3. What is the most important thing Ohioans should be paying attention to right now when it comes to reproductive rights? What about nationally?
Keep an eye on the Ohio legislature, which may be poised to pass a so-called “trigger ban” – a law saying that the minute Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion will be completely illegal in Ohio in almost all circumstances. This is an incredibly dangerous bill. They are also considering various measures that would require doctors to provide false or misleading information to patients who are seeking abortions in order to discourage them from having the procedure.
Look out, as well, for the Ohio Department of Health taking actions to close clinics in the state. Anti-abortion zealots have been engaged in a long game of making abortion inaccessible by adopting more and more burdensome requirements that force clinics to close or make it impossible to provide services. These actions often fly under the radar. We need to let all of these legislators and regulators know that we’re watching and that we will take political action to protect abortion rights.
I think it’s important for Ohioans to pay attention to the redistricting that is happening in 2021. Part of the reason for the predicament we’re in is that our state legislative districts are so heavily gerrymandered, allowing politicians who are far to the right of the mainstream to stay in power year after year. We have to make sure our voices are heard in this process and that our legislators get the message that we want fair districts and a representative General Assembly.
4. What should we be paying attention to nationally?
At the national level, both the legislature and the executive branch, including administrative agencies, are likely to be more supportive of reproductive autonomy and can take some limited measures to protect access to some reproductive health services. We still have a hostile Supreme Court majority, though. In a decision just handed down on January 12, the Court upheld the requirement for patients to pick up the abortion drug, mifepristone, in person in the clinic—even though we are in the middle of a pandemic and the FDA lifted in-person requirements for other drugs. This is not a good sign!
5. What silver linings do you see at the moment?
After Justice Ginsburg died and was replaced by Justice Amy Coney Barrett – Ginsburg’s polar opposite on abortion rights – a friend and colleague of mine said, “Well, I guess it’s up to us now.”
She meant that we can’t rely on the federal courts to save us any more – we have to forge our own destiny through political and social mobilization. I think if there’s any silver lining in this incredibly dark time, it’s that people are finally starting to pay attention to what has been happening for literally decades, in terms of a gradual erosion of our reproductive liberties. Nationally, support for abortion rights is currently the highest it’s ever been. I’m hopeful that, as right-wing judges and legislators continue to overplay their hands, the politics around abortion rights will continue to shift and more people will finally insist that the government stop dictating what they can do with their bodies.
6. What, if any hope, should Ohioans have for state courts, federal courts, and ultimately the Supreme Court when it comes to reproductive rights?
The federal courts are, quite possibly, lost to us for a generation. The transformation of the federal courts from protectors of individual rights to protectors of powerful interests in society has been a slow and deliberate one, carried out over many years. This could change with the Democrats recently winning two more Senate seats, but the process of transformation is still a very slow one. We can hope that the Supreme Court, which will unquestionably take up the question of abortion rights and Roe v. Wade sometime in the near future, will realize what’s at stake and step away from the precipice. Hopefully the justices will recognize not only that Roe is an important, correct precedent that is worthy of respect, but also that it is deeply important to the equal citizenship and dignity of women and pregnant people, and to destroy it would do profound and lasting damage.
On the other hand, I’m hopeful about the state courts and in particular the possibility that we are moving toward an Ohio Supreme Court that is more representative of our state, and one that is more concerned about the rights of Ohioans than of powerful corporate interests. State courts can provide protections that go beyond those that are recognized by the US Supreme Court under the federal Constitution.
7. Is there any way Ohioans can help you in the work that you do for reproductive rights in Ohio?
There are several things we can all do. I think the first one is to contribute to the important work of destigmatizing abortion. What that looks like is going to depend on who you are and where you are, but anything you can do to talk about abortion and why it’s normal – why it is a health care decision, and one that politicians should not be making for us – will slowly help to change the culture around these issues.
Folks can also support their local clinics and abortion funds that help people afford the abortions they need. This means supporting organizations working on the ground here in Ohio such as Women Have Options. As we have increasingly learned over the years, abortion rights are not meaningful without real access. Folks can also support organizations like NARAL Prochoice Ohio, New Voices for Reproductive Justice, and Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which advocate against restrictive policies and promote policies that ensure reproductive autonomy for everyone.
Finally, we should all be making our voices heard. People should call their legislators to express their opposition abortion restrictions. They can write letters to the editor. They can contact Governor DeWine’s office. The ACLU of Ohio is great about sending emails to alert us when there’s an action to be taken. Just staying alert and following through can make a huge difference. Part of why the anti-abortion folks have had so much power in this state is because they make a lot of noise; they have a voice that is completely out of proportion to their actual presence in the state. We need insist that our voices be heard too.