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Anger, uncertainty and determination inside an Ohio abortion clinic as Roe falls

Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
A nurse holds the hand of a patient as she gets an abortion at the Northeast Ohio Women’s Center in Cuyahoga Falls on Friday, hours after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The woman, who declined to be identified for this story, said she traveled from Toledo for the procedure.

Sherri Grossman sat at the front desk of the abortion clinic she runs and wiped tears from her eyes with a tissue after word came down that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade. She was alone. The clinic was still closed and clients weren't scheduled to be seen until 1 p.m.

Grossman, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Women’s Center in Cuyahoga Falls, said she was feeling a wide range of emotions following the decision, which overturned a 49-year-old precedent and erased the constitutional right to an abortion.

“I feel that in my gut, just that impending doom. A little bit of rage. Maybe a lot of rage. Sadness. Just … on the spectrum. Everything," she said.

“I’m mad at the protesters on the street. The Supreme Court is a joke. I’m mad at Donald Trump," Grossman said. "I’m angry that our side did not take more action sooner, years ago. The writing was on the wall. They were chipping at Roe for years and the writing was on the wall. So many of us were like, 'That will never happen, that will never happen.'”

"We have a pretty full schedule today here, so I have to hold it together for the patients," she said. "We have to give them the services they need. I might need to step away a couple of times and have a cry and come back."

Grossman's voice broke. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.

"I mean, even though we knew this was going to happen, it's not any less shocking."

Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
“People are terrified,” said Sherri Grossman, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Women’s Center in Cuyahoga Falls. Grossman said she had been answering calls from patients consistently Friday following the news that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade.

The court ruled in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health Organization that "the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion; Roe and Casey are overruled; and the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives."

Now state legislatures are free to pass their own laws regarding abortion access.

In Ohio, abortions are now banned after a fetal heartbeat is detected. The 2019 law went into effect Friday night, after U.S. District Court Judge Michael Barrett granted Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost's request to lift an injunction that had been in place for nearly three years.

"The heartbeat law has been sitting on the sidelines in federal court which could’ve saved countless lives over the past several years," Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis said in a statement. "Starting right now no baby with a beating heart can be aborted in the state of Ohio."

The Republican-dominated General Assembly will likely pass a full ban later this year. There are two Republican-sponsored measures, House Bill 598 and Senate Bill 123, that would ban abortion except in instances where doctors could prove the life of the mother was at risk. There would be no exemptions for rape or incest.

Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Drs. David Burkons (left) and Deanna Lines perform an abortion at the Northeast Ohio Women's Center on Friday. “We will do everything we can within the law to keep providing abortions," Burkons said in the hours following news that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade.

Still, on Friday afternoon — in the hours between the Dobbs decision and the lifting of the injunction on Ohio's heartbeat law — work continued in earnest at the Northeast Ohio Women's Center. On the schedule were seven surgical abortions, 15 "Day One" consultations — Ohio requires a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion — seven "Day Two" in-person medication abortion appointments and three "Day Two" appointments via Zoom.

One of those appointments was for Samantha, 28, of Canfield, in Mahoning County. It was her first pregnancy.

"I'm just thankful I'm not in a bad position, but it's just not the right time for me," she said of her decision to terminate her pregnancy. "We should all make our own choices and be able to go and have this done if we need to."

With a combination given to her during the Zoom call by Dr. David Burkons, the medical director and owner of the clinic, Samantha unlocked a lock box containing the pills for her medication abortion. Burkons had given Samantha the lock box and a set of written instructions a day earlier, when she came in person for her initial appointment. By law, a pregnant person must see a doctor, get an ultrasound and consent in writing to an abortion at least 24 hours before the abortion itself.

Samantha was aware she was beginning her abortion on a day when the rules around whether she would have access to one were changing.

"It's crazy, this timing," she said. "I would think the further we go, the better options, the more we would be able to do this as women. It seems we're just backtracking."

She swallowed her first pill in the medication abortion process, mifepristone, with a swig of a red-colored liquid.

Burkons said he's uncertain how the heartbeat law would affect his operations. In addition to the Cuyahoga Falls office, he operates a clinic in Shaker Heights. He also owns and operates the Toledo Women's Center. In total, he employs three full-time staff, 15 part-time staff and five doctors.

"It's not clear how we are supposed to document if there's a heartbeat, or whether we have to do a vaginal ultrasound or not do a vaginal ultrasound," he said. "These are all things that need to be decided" and turned into Ohio Department of Health regulations, he said.

“We will do everything we can within the law to keep providing abortions," said Burkons, who is 75. "But I won’t ask myself or any of my staff or any of my doctors to put themselves at risk in any legal jeopardy. If it comes to the point where it’s felt that it’s legally hazardous for us to keep providing abortions, I’ll close the clinics and retire."

Outside, a man on the sidewalk said he hoped that was exactly what would happen.

Doug, 48, of Cuyahoga Falls, who declined to give his last name because he didn't want any recognition for his advocacy work for the unborn, held a handmade sign that read, “Business Closing 2022.”

“It’s a hopeful sign. I am hopefully optimistic,” he said. “As soon as possible, no more abortions in this facility.”

He said his stance on abortion comes from his faith, and he added he hopes Gov. Mike DeWine acts quickly to enact a total ban on abortion that would shut down this clinic and the nine others operating in the state.

“Today, it’s a good day in America. In the eyes of God, this is wrong what we’ve been doing for the last 40-some years," he said. "We’ve taken the first step toward repenting this awful sin of ours as a country and now it’s going to be left up to the states to decide what’s best for them. It should always have been the states’ decisions, the voters, and not a bunch of guys in robes.”

Amy Eddings is Host/Producer of NPR’s “Morning Edition” on Ideastream Public Media.
Ryan Loew is the Digital News Editor for Ideastream Public Media.
Stephanie is the digital producer of Ideastream Public Media’s health team.