- Associated Press - Friday, January 31, 2014

CINCINNATI (AP) - A judge on Friday suspended a state order to close a suburban Cincinnati abortion clinic - one of two in the region - and ordered that it be allowed to remain open amid a court fight that could last more than a year.

Allowing the Lebanon Road Surgery Center of Sharonville to remain open does not pose an immediate threat to public safety, while closing it could create a hardship on the thousands of women who depend on the clinic every year, Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jerome Metz Jr. ruled.

The Ohio Department of Health this month ordered the clinic closed after agency Director Theodore Wymyslo decided to revoke its license, questioning whether it had followed rules to provide backup care for its patients.

Attorneys for the clinic are appealing that order and attributed the closure order to political pressure stemming from some 240 emails sent by anti-abortion activists to the health department before being forwarded to Republic Gov. John Kasich’s office.

Metz’s decision will allow the clinic to remain open during the appeals process, expected to take about a year.

For the past three years, the clinic has operated under an exception to state law that requires clinics providing abortions to secure a patient-transfer agreement with a hospital.

Unable to secure such an agreement, the clinic - with the department’s approval - has been using backup doctors who can admit patients to hospitals.

Wymyslo decided not to allow the clinic to continue as such, questioning why it hadn’t notified the department that one of its backup doctors no longer had admissions privileges, although it had two other backup doctors.

The clinic maintains that it did notify the state of the change and that its patients were never in any danger.

The clinic’s lawyer, Cincinnati civil rights attorney Jennifer Branch, argued that the administrative process that led the state to order the clinic closed took 15 months, during which it stayed open, and that allowing it to remain open during the lengthy court process would cause no harm.

“(Their) unhurried pace supports maintaining the status quo,” she wrote in a court filing.

The clinic is one of two that provides abortions in the Cincinnati region. If it closes, women between 18 and 22 weeks pregnant who need abortions - often due to medical problems - would have to travel to clinics in Cleveland, Chicago or Atlanta, the clinic’s medical director, Martin Haskell, said in court records.

Poor patients who get financial assistance might be unable to afford abortions elsewhere, Haskell said.

Melissa Wilburn, senior assistant attorney general, argued in court records for the state that the clinic’s appeal of the closure order has “no chance of succeeding,” and that “the public interest is not served when a clinic in clear violation of the law is permitted to continue to operate.”

Wilburn argued that the matter was simple: The clinic doesn’t have a transfer agreement and is no longer allowed to use doctors in place of the agreement, and therefore is not licensed to operate.

She rejected arguments that the clinic has operated safely for the past three years using backup doctors instead of a transfer agreement and should be allowed to continue to do so.

“No record of safety in the past can ever guarantee the future,” she wrote.


Follow Amanda Lee Myers on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AmandaLeeAP

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