COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Ohio’s statewide abortion fund has launched a pro-bono legal clinic to help people understand how to legally obtain one in the state.
The Abortion Fund of Ohio, formerly Women Have Options, has opened its Legal Access Program, a network of attorneys and care providers aimed at providing free legal advice to abortion seekers and those with reproductive health questions, according to the fund’s interim executive director Maggie Scotece.
Initially envisioned as a way to fill a void in services for minors looking to terminate a pregnancy, Scotece said the fall of Roe v. Wade in June – and the following confusion over Ohio’s six-week abortion ban, which has been indefinitely blocked – pushed her nonprofit to expand the Legal Access Program’s scope.
“Folks can call in and get everything from brief legal advice, resources to understand the law, information about what a judicial bypass might look like, all the way up to getting a referral to pro-bono attorneys who can help defend against criminalization or civil penalties for accessing or helping somebody access reproductive healthcare,” Scotece said.
The Legal Access Program will run in partnership with the Cleveland law firm Friedman, Nemecek and Long, whose attorneys offered a helping hand to the state’s abortion fund once the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe, Scotece said.
Madelyn Grant, an attorney at Friedman, Nemecek and Long, said the fall of Roe after nearly 50 years ushered in a wave of callers – including doctors, patients and advocates – seeking answers to questions, like “How do we provide the services we typically provide on a day-to-day basis with this new law?”
“Not even those providing (abortion) but those part of the process,” Grant said. “Are they taking the phone call, are they a nurse administrator, what questions can they answer without being penalized?”
Hours after the Supreme Court released its opinion in June, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost successfully petitioned a judge to re-enact enforcement of a state law that largely prohibited abortion once fetal cardiac activity is detected, typically around the sixth week of pregnancy.
But that was short-lived, however, as Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Christian Jenkins sided with abortion providers in September to temporarily halt enforcement. He doubled down in October, issuing a preliminary injunction against the bill to indefinitely block its enforcement.
Abortion remains legal in Ohio up to 20 weeks of gestation – a fact the Abortion Fund of Ohio continues to educate its callers about, Scotece said. “A lot of people don’t even know that abortion is legal in their state,” she said.
“Even our own staff were not always sure what the status of the law is,” Scotece said. “I’m an attorney; I work in this field, and I have been giving presentations this year and the law has changed while I’m actively giving the presentation, which makes it hard on everybody.”
Abortion Fund of Ohio board member Aileen Day said in a statement that the Legal Access Program is particularly important in Ohio, which had the second-highest number of criminal cases brought against people for allegedly terminating a pregnancy or aiding someone else in doing so, according to an August 2022 report from reproductive rights group If/When/How.
“In our post-Roe world, that number is only expected to rise,” Day said.
The Legal Access Program will also serve Ohioans under the age of 18 seeking to terminate their pregnancy, Scotece said. Under state law, pregnant minors must get parental consent before obtaining an abortion unless a judge decides to excuse them from that requirement in a process called “judicial bypass,” she said.
Nearly 3% of the 22,000 people who obtained an abortion in Ohio in 2021 were under the age of 18, according to the state department of health.
“The program is designed to both kind of ease that intake process so that they can get this process filed easier, and also create this system of attorneys who have that training and the understanding of what it means to be an abortion seeker, what it means to try and access abortion in the state of Ohio,” she said.