Ohio Democrat Mulling Senate Run Defended Anti-Abortion Laws as State Health Director

The former director of Ohio’s Department of Health, Dr. Amy Acton, a Democrat who is exploring a possible run for Senate, has become a complicated figure in Ohio politics for her role in overseeing the state’s abortion clinics under Republican Gov. Mike DeWine.

As health director, Acton defended the state’s decision to cut funding for Planned Parenthood in federal court, defended a “heartbeat bill” that even former Republican Gov. John Kasich had opposed, tried to shut down the last abortion clinic in Cincinnati, and requested that the state attorney general send cease-and-desist orders to abortion clinics operating during a ban on “nonessential” surgery at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While anti-abortion advocates applauded some of these moves, they also fiercely opposed Acton in other cases. She forced the last abortion clinic in the Dayton area to temporarily turn patients away, and later let it reopen, drawing fire from anti-abortion groups who later speculated that she stepped down from leading the Health Department in June because of criticism for being “pro-abortion.”

Before being elected governor, DeWine was the state’s attorney general under Kasich, whose administration worked quietly to curtail abortion access in Ohio with the help of the Department of Health. As attorney general, DeWine went to court to defend those efforts, and as governor, has continued the work of his predecessor. When Acton joined the Health Department, she declined to take a position on abortion, saying she would follow state law.

Yet reproductive rights advocates charge that, as part of her role in an administration that was ideologically opposed to abortion, Acton went beyond what was required by state law.

“There are actions that she took as director of the department of health that I would argue go past what she was required to do by Ohio law, and I feel treated abortion clinics differently,” said Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio.

Acton is one of several Democrats considering running for the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who announced in January that he wouldn’t seek reelection next year. Democrats are hoping Portman’s departure could lead to an easy pickup for the party to help expand their slim majority in the Senate.

Acton’s profile rose during the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, when she appeared regularly at press conferences alongside DeWine and pushed to enforce strict coronavirus safety measures in the face of criticism from state Republicans. Acton received national attention, including coverage from the New York Times and the New Yorker. There is a “Dr. Amy Acton Fan Club” on Facebook, with more than 123,000 members. Acton left the Department of Health in June to become DeWine’s chief health adviser. She resigned from that role in August, and in September joined the Columbus Foundation, a philanthropic organization where she had previously worked before joining the health department. Acton resigned from that role last month as she mulls a run for Senate. Acton declined to comment for this story because she is not a candidate at this time.

An early poll released Monday, commissioned by 314 Action Fund, a group supporting STEM candidates and seeking to recruit Acton, showed her with a higher net favorability than other potential Republican and Democratic candidates for the seat, including Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who has said he plans to run. (Ryan opposed abortion early in his career, but said in 2015 that he was pro-choice.) Last week, the group released a poll showing Acton with a stronger favorability than Ryan in a head-to-head match-up. Others who are exploring bids include State House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes; Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce, who has served as a state representative as well as state treasurer; Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor; and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.

Acton is expected to find support among wealthy suburban voters and women in particular. “What makes her leadership so unique is that she actually exemplifies the strength of women’s leadership because she shows how brutal honesty, vulnerability, and empathy make you tough, not weak,” Katie Paris, the founder of Red Wine and Blue, a grassroots advocacy group that focuses on suburban women voters, told the Toledo Blade. Even local Republican leaders have said Acton could pose a threat to the GOP by appealing to suburban women, a demographic the party has been losing ground with since Donald Trump’s election. But Acton’s role in DeWine’s administration, which pushed to restrict abortion in the state, could become a campaign issue with those same voters. More than half of voters in Ohio opposed the state’s heartbeat bill in 2019. Sixty-six percent of Ohio Democrats who supported Joe Biden in 2020 think abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Copeland, of NARAL Pro-Choice, said women will want to know definitively what position Acton has on abortion. “As a candidate, she would have to clarify her position on abortion,” Copeland said. “And she would have to speak to why she took the actions that she took, which interrupted and endangered abortion care for Ohioans.”

Acton was named the first woman to lead Ohio’s health department, overseeing the state’s abortion clinics, in February 2019. Shortly afterward, she defended the state’s decision to cut funding for Planned Parenthood on the grounds that the organization performed abortions.

Ohio passed a law cutting state funding for Planned Parenthood in 2016. A federal appeals court upheld the measure in 2019, after it had been struck down by a smaller panel at the same court, as well as by a federal district judge. In hopes of extending its funding, Planned Parenthood had asked the appellate court to delay the law from being implemented while the group explored options to appeal to the Supreme Court.

The state officially cut funding for Planned Parenthood in March 2019. The organization had received just under $600,000 in state funding the previous year, according to the health department. Acton argued in court filings that the amount of money the organization was at risk of losing amounted to only 5 percent of its revenue.

According to court filings from the time, Acton argued that Planned Parenthood’s request was “a very effective delay tactic” and that the organization would “not be injured at all” from losing state money, the Beacon Journal reported. She also asserted that Planned Parenthood had little chance of getting the Supreme Court to review the case, because it would require convincing the court “to recognize, for the first time ever, a constitutional right to perform an abortion,” the odds of which, she argued, are “vanishingly small.” The court “today is not likely to invent new constitutional rights — such as the right to perform abortions — with no grounding in the Constitution’s text,” Acton and the department’s lawyers reasoned.

She went on to call Planned Parenthood’s claims that it would be injured by a cut in funding “dubious,” arguing that the organization already loses money through its programs and blaming them for having “failed to plan ahead.”

“Planned Parenthood and its employees have had three years to prepare for the possibility that certain funding streams might not be available,” Acton argued, contending that any injury to their employees “results not from the failure to stay the mandate, but from Planned Parenthood’s failure to warn its employees (or their failure to heed its warning) about the consequences of an adverse decision.”

Taxpayers would suffer if the court allowed the law to be delayed any further, Acton concluded. “Ohio has already been forced to support Planned Parenthood and similar entities with three years of funding to which they were not entitled,” she claimed. “Allowing that to go on any longer means further thwarting the will of the People.”

Several months later, Acton was in court again defending the state against a lawsuit filed by several surgical abortion clinics, the American Civil Liberties Union, and its affiliate in Ohio against a heartbeat bill DeWine signed into law in April 2019, the year he entered office. The president-elect of the Right to Life Coalition of Ohio said the group was confident Acton would “write solid rules to implement this life saving law.” Kasich had previously vetoed similar bills twice.

The bill banned abortions from the point of being able to detect a fetus’s heartbeat and introduced criminal charges for doctors who performed them after that point. The measure included exceptions for cases where a mother’s life or health is in danger but not in cases of rape or incest. Anti-abortion groups like Ohio Right to Life welcomed the heartbeat bill, with their president saying it had “the potential to be the vehicle that overturns Roe v. Wade.” DeWine echoed that sentiment when he first pushed the bill, saying he expected it to face lawsuits and that such litigation could help raise the issue to the Supreme Court.

In August 2019, Acton denied a request from one of the Dayton area’s only abortion clinics to renew a waiver that would allow it to remain open because it did not have a written agreement with a local hospital to transfer patients in an emergency, forcing the clinic to limit its services and turn patients away for more than two weeks, the Columbus Dispatch reported. A local hospital had reportedly refused to sign a transfer agreement with the clinic, and its previous waiver had expired. That October, Acton granted an operating license to let the clinic resume normal operation; anti-abortion groups claimed that Acton had manipulated paperwork in order to do so. A few months later, Acton sought to revoke a license for the last abortion clinic in Cincinnati for not meeting the requirements for the same written transfer agreement. The decision was promoted on Ohio Right to Life’s website

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic last March, the Ohio Health Department issued an order canceling nonessential or elective surgeries and procedures. Acton requested that Ohio’s attorney general order abortion clinics in the state to stop performing nonessential procedures, to which abortion-rights advocates replied that nonessential abortions do not exist.

Josh Mandel, the state’s former treasurer and a former representative in the state house, and Jane Timken, former chair of the state Republican Party, are running in the GOP primary. Tech billionaire Peter Thiel and the family of Robert Mercer have contributed to a PAC backing a possible run from venture capitalist and Republican J.D. Vance.

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