In recent years, anti-abortion advocates across the country have adopted a multi-pronged approach to ban abortion as frequently and in as many places as possible. Despite the blatant unconstitutionality of these attempts, anti-abortionists target areas most vulnerable to these bans with the intention they spread like wildfire.
Last year, pro-abortion advocates in Ohio were able to put out this fire, but not before Lebanon City Council passed a local ordinance banning abortion. Despite having no abortion clinics within city limits, councilmembers decided to make their city liable to litigation, their residents to financial losses, and their community to immeasurable harm.
Before diving into the horrific ramifications of such an egregious overreach of municipal power, it is important we acknowledge the leaked document from the United States Supreme Court, exposed by Politico on May 2, 2022. If the final decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization ends up proving at all similar to the leaked draft, the effects will be devastating. Half of the country’s population will lose their right to bodily autonomy and people will be forced by the government to carry pregnancies against their will.
For now, abortion is still legal in Ohio up to 20 weeks. Despite what might happen when the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision is officially released, the ordinance out of Lebanon City Council should be struck down because it violates rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and ignores rules established by the Ohio Constitution.
The attacks on our constitutional rights.
The Lebanon abortion ban prohibits anyone from providing an abortion within city limits. It goes further to ban anyone from providing money, transportation, or counseling for how to obtain an abortion – something needed by residents since Lebanon city does not have any abortion clinics. Lastly, the ban utilizes vague language criminalizing any action that “aid(s) and abet(s)” an abortion to try to discourage pregnant people from seeking abortion-related care and third-parties from assisting in reproductive choice.
When Lebanon City Council enacted an abortion ban in May 2021, councilmembers violated people’s rights guaranteed under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The abortion ban enacted in Lebanon, Ohio, includes activities such as advising pregnant people of their options, which is protected speech. Pro-choice speech is not illegal just because a handful of government officials don’t like the idea of abortion.
Another crucial right guaranteed under the Constitution, found in the Fourteenth Amendment, is the Due Process Clause. This clause mandates the government cannot criminalize action without stating, explicitly, the exact actions it wishes to criminalize. The Lebanon ban, and those like it, are in direct violation of this constitutional protection. The use of vague language such as “aid and abet,” puts the expectation on ordinary citizens to interpret complex and nuanced legal concepts in order to figure out if their actions might be construed as such, and therefore make them liable to prosecution. The vagueness used in this ordinance also leaves in question how it would be enforced. This lack of clarity violates our rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
According to the Ohio Constitution’s Home-Rule provision, a municipality may generally make their own laws, but not if they directly conflict with state law. One common conflict is when both a city and the state outlaw a behavior, but prescribe different punishments for violating the law. The state of Ohio has a number of laws relating to abortion (e.g. total ban, heartbeat ban, D&E ban) that are currently enjoined, or temporarily blocked by the courts. These laws, though not currently enforced, are felonies. The Lebanon City Council’s ban, however, would charge violators of its ordinance with misdemeanors. While the ACLU of Ohio stands firmly against the criminalization of abortion care, this Home-Rule violation highlights one of the many ways the Lebanon City Council broke the law in order to promote their anti-abortion agenda.
The abortion ban costs the city of Lebanon in more ways than one.
Lebanon City Council knowingly set their residents up to foot the significant bill of impending litigation. It was only a matter of time before this blatant disregard for the United States Constitution would be challenged in the courts. In fact, the ACLU of Ohio issued a press statement on May 25, 2021 announcing intentions to mount a legal battle. It’s astonishing that the city would gamble with taxpayer dollars on frivolous and avoidable litigation rather than putting that money back into the community.
Watching the city spend tax dollars irresponsibly is unfortunately not the only way citizens of Lebanon have felt the financial ramifications of this illegal ban. Erin Glynn, reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, details an anonymous survey conducted by University of Cincinnati professor, Michael Cook. Cook, who researches consumer psychology, sought information on sales from business owners in Lebanon three weeks following the ban and compared it to sales data during the same period in 2019 and 2020. Overall, the data showed a decrease in sales for retail businesses and less than half of the restaurants owners who responded indicated an increase in their own sales compared with previous years.
The broader ramifications of a localized ban.
The architects of these localized abortion bans disregard whether or not a city actually provides abortions because stopping abortion within city limits is not the only goal. Localized abortion bans are also a tool used by anti-choice people to shame others out of receiving normal reproductive healthcare. Creating stigma and shame around abortion does not stop people from receiving them. It does, though, further isolate people from their communities and creates an unwelcomed space for current and future residents.
As more anti-abortion leaders choose to disregard the nation’s founding document through these local bans, pregnant people will continue to bear the brunt of these decisions. Recent research estimates that if those bans spread, and abortion is banned nationwide, the country would see an already abysmal maternal mortality rate increase by 21%. The impact is even more severe on Black communities.
Now more than ever, it is imperative that leaders in the city, state, and federal government listen to the majority of Americans who support legalizing abortion and protect people’s right to choose.
On May 11, 2022, the ACLU of Ohio along with Democracy Forward filed a lawsuit in federal court to prevent future enforcement of the anti-abortion ban in Lebanon, Ohio. Read more about the case here.