Social-worker, rights groups sue Ohio city over abortion ban

May 11, 2022 GMT

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Groups advocating for professional social workers and women’s rights challenged a small Ohio city’s ban on abortion Wednesday, arguing it is an “extraordinarily broad” infringement on the constitutional rights of due process and free speech.

The lawsuit argues that the abortion restriction approved last May by the city of Lebanon, in southwest Ohio, should be declared illegal regardless of whether the U.S. Supreme Court follows through with a leaked opinion overturning Roe v. Wade.

“This case concerns whether a municipal government may enact a vague, sweeping ordinance that can be interpreted to criminalize virtually all activity even tangentially connected to abortion without providing fair notice of the specific conduct it forbids,” lawyers for the ACLU of Ohio and Democracy Forward argued on behalf of the National Association of Social Workers and Women Have Options-Ohio.

The litigation also asserts that, by declaring actions misdemeanors at the local level that are considered felonies by the state, the Lebanon ban violates Ohio’s home rule provisions.

Lebanon’s ban was one of four that cropped up around Ohio last year, part of a national effort to ban abortion “one city at a time” by the Texas-based Sanctuary Cities of the Unborn organization. Nearby Mason passed, then repealed, its ban and two other cities — Celina in Mercer County and London in Madison County — saw their measures fizzle.

According to the Texas group’s website, 49 cities across the U.S. have so far passed similar abortion bans.

Right to Life East Texas director Mark Lee Dickson, a Southern Baptist minister leading the charge for local abortion restrictions, said the ACLU has already sued over laws similar to Lebanon’s in Texas and lost.

“We stand behind the Lebanon ordinance as it is drafted, and we believe we will see a victory in Lebanon, Ohio,” Dickson said Wednesday.

He said former Texas Solicitor General Jonathan F. Mitchell has agreed to represent Lebanon against in the Ohio case. Mitchell and Dickson worked together to craft the Texas state abortion law that could soon upend Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that legalized abortion in the U.S.

Plaintiffs in the Ohio challenge told the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio in Wednesday’s filing that the Lebanon ban — which forbids anyone from taking action that “aids or abets” an abortion — appears to require social workers not to discuss abortion when counseling pregnant clients. Abiding by that restriction “would conflict with social workers’ ethical obligation to promote the client’s self-determination,” they argue.

The social workers’ association has taken a position that reproductive freedom is a human right.

The groups also allege the Ohio ban includes a list of exemptions and affirmative defenses that “simply exacerbate the law’s vagueness problem,” and its broad language could be interpreted as allowing enforcement behind Lebanon city limits.

Dickson said the law being challenged was written to ban performing or aiding or abetting abortions only within Lebanon city limits.