New Ohio law could allow doctors to deny abortions even if the patient qualifies for an exception
Some abortions in Ohio are still legal, even under the new abortion ban, to save the life of a pregnant person, or to prevent permanent impairment of their organs. But there’s a different Ohio law, known as the “conscience clause,” that could factor into whether a doctor provides abortion care.
The “conscience clause” went into effect in September 2021. It allows doctors and other medical providers, including pharmacists, to deny medical care based on their moral, religious, or ethical beliefs.
It’s unclear whether providers might be using it to deny abortions or abortion pills to patients who are legally allowed access to them under the six-week ban.
However, OB-GYNs and abortion advocates are voicing concerns that doctors are more likely to turn eligible patients away out of fear of facing criminal penalties, not the “conscience clause.”
Dr. Catherine Romanos, Columbus area family practice doctor, said she is aware of two cases where doctors referred their patients to a clinic that performs abortions because they had ectopic pregnancies, even though the original doctors could have performed those abortions.
Doctors are still allowed to perform abortions in cases of ectopic pregnancies under Ohio’s new abortion ban which prohibits abortions when fetal heart activity can be detected. That can happen as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women even know they are pregnant.
Romanos said it’s clear that it is “absolutely legal to perform abortions for ectopic pregnancies” which occur when the fertilized egg implants in fallopian tubes or somewhere other than inside the uterus.
Romanos said there is no way a pregnant person can carry ectopic pregnancies to term and there is no way the fetus in those cases can survive. But she said allowing those pregnancies to progress poses a risk to the life of the pregnant person. She said she thinks some doctors are confused about that exception.
“I think the bottom line is that when the legislature starts introducing criminal penalties for what has always been evidence-based, safe health care, doctors get confused and scared,” Romanos said.
She said doctors tend to be rule followers by nature, following protocols and best practices. She said no one wants to break the law. And in the case of Ohio’s new six-week abortion ban, a doctor who provides an illegal abortion faces a felony charge and could lose their license to practice medicine in Ohio.
Romanos said she thinks confusion over the new abortion ban itself might be why some doctors are balking at providing care in cases, not Ohio’s new “conscience law” that could also apply in some cases.
Romanos, who is a supporter of abortion rights, noted the irony that she has been forced to violate her own moral, religious and ethical beliefs every day since Ohio’s six-week ban went into place.
“Every day I am turning away patients and I feel like my conscience has been violated and I am providing care contrary to my morals and ethics,” Romanos said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed suit in the Franklin County Common Pleas Court on April 29 to overturn the “conscience clause” law. Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein, a Democrat, also filed a separate suit.
David Carey, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Ohio, said he cannot comment on whether the “conscience clause” could be used by a doctor to actually provide abortions to patients without having more specific information about the situations involved. But he noted the law was designed to protect individuals who decline to perform care in more than one way.
“So, under some circumstances, someone could be subject to employment discipline if they refuse to do their job. This law changes that relationship fundamentally. The exact scope of it is, frankly, very unclear and that’s part of the basis of our lawsuit,” Carey said.
Carey said the other part of the ACLU’s lawsuit claims the new law violates the single subject rule by “piggy-backing” an entirely different law into a bill that was meant to accomplish something else. That something else, Carey said, is the two-year Ohio budget which was put into effect last summer.