By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio sued the state over including abortion-related provisions in its budget, in what abortion rights activists charged was an effort to quietly restrict women's access to clinics.
The ACLU said Ohio unconstitutionally approved three restrictions along with the state budget in June, including one that bars public hospitals from having patient transfer agreements with clinics, which were unrelated to budget issues.
Ohio, which has a Republican-controlled legislature and Republican governor, has become known among abortion rights supporters as a testing ground for restrictions, as conservatives have pushed a number of new proposed abortion provisions on the state level over the past three years.
"(The amendments were) highly controversial social legislation that were snuck into a must-pass budget bill in the eleventh hour without public debate or input," said ACLU cooperating attorney Jessie Hill.
At least two of the three abortion restrictions, one requiring that patients receive details about fetal heartbeat before they undergo an abortion and the transfer agreement ban, have nothing to do with the budget, the ACLU said.
Michael Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, called the lawsuit "a legal stunt by the ACLU that will end up costing the Ohio taxpayers."
Gonidakis is a member of the Ohio State Medical Board and a defendant in the lawsuit.
Abortion rights advocates have expressed concern that Ohio's transfer agreement law, which was threatening to close Toledo's only abortion clinic, could be replicated elsewhere, as eight other states require abortion clinics to have transfer agreements.
One of the Ohio budget amendments bars abortion clinics from making agreements to move women needing emergency care to public hospitals. This amendment is threatening closure of Capital Care in Toledo, because its transfer agreement with a public hospital expired in July and, under the new law, the clinic cannot renew it.
The other Ohio amendments require clinics to present patients with evidence of a fetal heartbeat before performing abortions and create a "parenting and pregnancy" program to give state money to private groups that are forbidden to discuss abortion services, the ACLU said.
The ACLU said the first two amendments have nothing to do with budget appropriations - while the third creates and funds a new government program, something it said requires stand-alone legislation.
The lawsuit also names Governor John R. Kasich, a Republican who signed the budget bill, the state of Ohio, and Theodore Wymyslo, director of the Ohio Department of Health.
Spokesmen for Kasich and the health department said they had no comment on the litigation.
The ACLU of Ohio filed the lawsuit in Cuyahoga County court on behalf of a Cleveland clinic that provides contraception and abortion services.
(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Gunna Dickson)