Abortion Fund of Ohio navigates the complex post-Dobbs landscape

AFO launched a new Legal Access Program last week that provides free legal assistance to abortion seekers. It also established the state’s first judicial bypass program.
An abortion rights rally
An abortion rights rallyBy Gayatri Malhotra for Unsplash

There’s a famous scene in the sitcom “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” where Charlie Day goes on a lengthy conspiratorial rant while standing in front of a pinboard scattered with documents, images of which have since been turned into a well-trafficked internet meme

For Maggie Scotece, interim executive director of the Abortion Fund of Ohio (AFO), navigating the abortion access landscape in the months since the Supreme Court ruled in June that abortion was not a protected Constitutional right has created a similarly dizzying sensation.

“Obviously, with the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, a lot of legal questions came up that we’d never really had to wrestle with before,” said Scotece, referencing the Supreme Court case that overturned Roe v. Wade. “And this patchwork of laws that legislators had been creating in Ohio and across the country, which had never really gone into effect when Roe was the law of the land, we got to see how catastrophic those legislative changes were once they finally went into effect this summer.”

This meant the small staff of AFO, which currently numbers nine, had to familiarize itself not only with abortion access laws nationwide, and in particular those in neighboring states, but also the rules and regulations adopted within Ohio’s various cities and townships. As one example, Scotece pointed to Lebanon, Ohio, which passed a law criminalizing abortion within its city limits, despite not being home to a single abortion provider.

“So, what they were really criminalizing was people helping folks from Lebanon move in and out of the city to access abortion care,” Scotece said of the law, which AFO successfully challenged in court. “And when we asked them what they were attempting to criminalize, they were really vague about it. It was everything from just being a supportive ear for someone who was considering an abortion to driving the person out of town to get one. And that’s just not reasonable. No one can manage their life and their own criminal risk based on these laws, which so often aren’t rooted in science.”

Scotece said the confusion sewn around abortion laws can often be purposeful, with state and city governments crafting knowingly vague legislation in order to create a climate of fear around the medical procedure. As a result, many in the general public are often left unaware of what the actual laws related to abortion are in the place where they live. Scotece said this is particularly true in Ohio, where last year legislators passed a bill prohibiting abortion as little as six weeks into a pregnancy – a law later blocked indefinitely by the courts.

“And even though we have access back now (abortion is legal in Ohio up through 22 weeks of pregnancy), that legal question is still looming large, and there are a lot of folks in Ohio who don’t know that access is still legal in Ohio,” Scotece said. “And that’s a huge barrier to access, because if you think something is illegal, you’re most likely not going to try to access it. … And through the history of criminalization of pregnancy outcomes in this country, we know that criminalization is overwhelmingly going to fall on Black and Brown folks, folks with disabilities, folks of other marginalized identities.”

As a means of countering this complex patchwork that exists in the post-Dobbs U.S., last week AFO partnered with Friedman & Nemeck to launch a new Legal Access Program (LAP) that provides free legal assistance to abortion seekers and anyone caught up in “aid and abet” laws, along with advice regarding self-managed abortion. The program also establishes the state’s first judicial bypass program. In the simplest terms, LAP is designed to provide abortion seekers the most up-to-date legal information possible, so that those considering the procedure are fully knowledgeable of their legal rights.

It’s also, Scotece said, a part of AFO’s statewide strategy, the organization hoping to ensure that the first person to be criminalized under any newly established abortion law has access to the best possible legal representation. “We want that person to have the best representation to set the law the best way we can for the rest of Ohio,” Scotece said. “A lot of times, for lack of a better term, ‘bad’ law can be set when someone who is being criminalized doesn’t have the ability to fully challenge every aspect of the law.”

Out of necessity, AFO has evolved to confront these new challenges and to continue to help abortion seekers receive the needed care – a level of adaptation that Scotece said will allow the organization to continue as Ohio legislators introduce new abortion restrictions, a reality she described as likely given the current makeup of the State Supreme Court. 

At the same time, Scotece said these mounting challenges are nothing new for abortion rights advocates.

“Ohio has been criminalizing abortion and reproductive health care for a long time, and has been doing so in really sneaky, terrible ways,” she said. “So, yes, it is frustrating that our goalposts have to change, but I also think it allows us some time for reckoning and really being honest about the world that has been created with the laws that legislators have been passing in our state. And we need to be honest about what that looks like, and what Ohioans and private nonprofits have had to step in and do to support other Ohioans over the last three years, in particular, when our state hasn’t been.”

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