CLEVELAND—The language on abortion in the Republican Party platform reads like a love letter to states like Ohio.
After name-checking a wish list of federal bans, the document praises “the many states that have passed laws for informed consent, mandatory waiting periods prior to an abortion, and health-protective clinic regulation.”
Ohio has each of those laws in place. And in the last five years alone, Republican Gov. John Kasich, who was hailed as a moderate during his unsuccessful presidential bid, signed 17 abortion restrictions into law.
"It's a hot mess," Kellie Copeland, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, told me on the overcast Tuesday afternoon when we met in her office, where a purple hat with glitter ovaries hangs from the door. “We have a situation where we have laws and policies that don't serve the citizens. When you have a gerrymandered district, you have disenfranchised voters. You have picked your voters instead of your voters picking you.”
In the last two elections, Republicans won 75% of congressional seats with just 55% of the vote. And at the state level, the Republican supermajority has passed a number of restrictions defining whether, when, and how women can access abortion services in Ohio.
These lawmakers have packaged a lot of these restrictions through budgets and administrative rules. The approach is subtler than, say, Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law (parts of which were recently overturned by the Supreme Court), but the consequences are the same: Nearly half the clinics that provided abortion in the state have either closed or stopped offering the procedure in the last five years.
And, like in many other states with similar restrictions on the books, low-income women, women of color, and immigrant women are often the hardest hit.
Thousands of Republicans are in Cleveland this week—party delegates and protesters from the fringes of the conservative movement—to nominate Donald Trump for president. But they’re also here to lay out a political path that would make abortion access in the rest of the country look a lot more like Ohio.
Molly Marvar was already struggling to make ends meet when she learned she was pregnant.
“I was barely living paycheck to paycheck,” she told me. Marver was working as a bartender, and wasn’t in a stable relationship. The decision to seek an abortion wasn’t a difficult one. Actually getting the procedure proved to be the bigger challenge.
“You don’t realize all the other elements involved until you’re going through it,” she explained. Marver had her abortion here in Cleveland at a clinic called Preterm, which is the state's largest abortion provider. “I had to schedule off work, having someone to also take off work to bring me to the clinic and take me home. There were all these things that I didn’t think should be that difficult to receive basic healthcare.”
The procedure cost $500, and Marver had get help to cover the expense.
“Any kind of extra expense was a matter of having to make sacrifices for being late on rent, utilities, groceries,” she said of spending the money on the procedure while in a financially precarious situation. “And even though that $500 may not seem like a lot to some people, for me personally it had a significant impact.”
Marver isn’t alone. Cost can be a prohibitive factor for women seeking abortion. A 2014 study from the University of California, San Francisco found that 4,000 women were denied abortions in 2008 because they had passed the gestational limit on the procedure. Researchers found that the most common reason cited by women who had to delay accessing the procedure was cost, either because of travel or for the procedure itself.
Ohio passed its own 20-week ban in 2015.
Alice Jackson, another woman I met who had an abortion at Preterm, didn’t talk much about the legal hurdles. She was more perplexed, she said, by the protesters who are stationed outside the clinic every day:
“I don’t like people to tell me what to do. So for a whole bunch of men to tell you what to do with your body parts was weird to me.”
On the Wednesday before the start of the Republican National Convention, about 40 protesters knelt on the steps of the Quicken Loans Arena and prayed for the Republican National Committee.
”Make us, oh lord, people of justice,” a woman called out to a response of “amens.”
Most of the protesters that day were with the Ohio-based Created Equal, but two women I spoke to had traveled from California at the behest of an organization called Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust.
They were all there for #OperationRNC, a series of protests to make sure the Republican platform, which calls for a total ban on abortion without exceptions for rape, incest, or a woman’s life and health, “maintained its pro-life principles,” one young protester told me.
“Well you know the party platform is just the mission statement for the party, just letters and words on paper,” Mark Harrington, the founder of Created Equal, an anti-abortion group that borrows heavily from the language of the civil rights movement in its literature and mission statement, told me near Public Square in downtown Cleveland. (Harrington is white, as are most of the faces on the organization’s website.) “So the fact that it says we’re going to defund Planned Parenthood. Well, that's a victory; we want that to happen. But we also want them to keep true to the words that are in that party platform.”
But keeping true to some the words of the platform is a contentious issue, even among the anti-abortion protesters I met that day. A total ban on abortion of the sort that the platform calls for—the platform supports fetal personhood, which would make fertilized eggs legal persons—would make abortion the legal equivalent of murder.
"Here's the thing, we're not going to criminalize abortion tomorrow, we understand that,” Harrington said. “Abortion needs to be made unthinkable. We need to change the culture. You change the culture, you change the politics. So we're looking 10, 15, 20, 50 years even, to when we get to a place where the public says, 'Yeah, this should be illegal.' The idea that we're going to criminalize abortion tomorrow is a myth."
When I asked him what would happen to women who have abortions in 10, 15, 20, or 50 years, if abortion were criminalized, he said it "would be like a woman who drowns her child in a bathtub, that's the place we hope it would get to." (Donald Trump, in answering this same question, said—and then unsaid—that women should “face some form of punishment.”)
When I asked him what he thought the legal consequences should be for women who do the equivalent of drowning their children in bathtubs, he declined to answer: “It's up to lawmakers as to what they decide to do.”
Across the street a moment later, I spoke to a young woman holding a poster board depicting a mangled fetus. I asked her the same question. She was 19, soft-spoken with rainbow-colored hair.
"I believe so,” she said, politely and without hesitation. “Yes."