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Mixed Feelings About 'Sanctuary Cities For The Unborn' In Warren County

Warren County Democrat Marla Bell in front of the party headquarters in Lebanon.
Chris Welter
Warren County Democrat Marla Bell in front of the party headquarters in Lebanon.

This year, two different city councils in Warren County have debated local ordinances that would make their towns so-called “sanctuary cities for the unborn.” The city of Lebanon adopted an anti-abortion ordinance in May. The city of Mason may do the same at their next council meeting in September.

Erin Glynn is a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer and has been following the situation in both cities. WYSO’s Chris Welter spoke with Glynn about what she is seeing and hearing on the ground. Both Glynn and Welter are Report for America corps members.

Transcript (edited lightly for length and clarity):

Chris: Can you tell me about your position with Report for America and The Enquirer?

Erin: Ten years ago, Butler and Warren counties had a whole news bureau staffed by The Enquirer with about 10 people. And as time has gone on and The Enquirer staff shrunk, there's just been no one [from The Enquirer] covering these suburban counties now for about three years until they created the Report for America position. So it's definitely the definition of a news desert where there weren't people watching, just doing regular watchdog reporting about local governments and institutions.

Chris: What's been happening these past few months in Warren County with these local ordinances to ban abortion?

Erin: Lebanon City Council passed an ordinance on May 25th which declared Lebanon a sanctuary city for the unborn. The ordinance makes it illegal to provide an abortion, aid an abortion, provide money or transportation for an abortion and provide instructions for an abortion within city limits. So it doesn't directly target the person seeking an abortion. But critics say it sends a message that residents seeking abortion would need to do so in secret. Violation of that law would be a first degree misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Lebanon was the first time any city in Ohio has done something like this.

And then Mason City Council members in July expressed interest in bringing a similar ordinance to Mason. Mayor Kathy Grossman and council member T.J. Honerlaw met with Mark Lee Dickson, who's the director of Right to Life of East Texas. He's lobbied for abortion bans across Texas. Then at Mason City Council's most recent meeting on August 9th, the council heard from over 60 people both in favor and against the ban, but they did not actually introduce an ordinance. So that's something they could potentially do at their next meeting on September 13th.

Chris: You said earlier that some of these local politicians have been meeting with representatives from anti-abortion groups from Texas. Is it your impression that this is kind of a performative or a symbolic thing that's a part of a larger nationwide movement?

Erin: I know Mark Lee Dickson is hoping to sort of make abortion illegal in Ohio or in the country by doing this city by city. A lot of Lebanon residents and Mason residents I've talked to do feel like this is not about their city. It's kind of a stepping stone for local politicians seeking higher office. It does seem like it's stepping outside the bounds of what a city council normally works on—the Lebanon ordinance was on the agenda next to things about road repair, city zoning. So that's more in line with what they would cover at a typical meeting.

Chris: What are the local and then statewide efforts opposing this bill?

Erin: Two activist groups have formed in Lebanon in the wake of the ban. I spoke to resident Leslie Nahigyan, who formed a group called The Handmaids, which is a reference to Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid's Tale. And that group has since grown into the Planned Parenthood Action Council of Warren County. Then I spoke to another resident, Lisa Sizemore, who is one of the leaders of Activate Lebanon. That's a nonpartisan group that doesn't object to the content of the abortion ban itself, but rather the way it was passed. Both Sizemore and Nahigyan are running for Lebanon City Council this November. Actually the Warren County Board of Elections has said that this is one of the largest groups of people they've ever seen pull petitions to run for Lebanon City Council.

There are no clinics that provide abortions in either Lebanon or Mason and there aren't any planned. So some Lebanon residents I've spoken with are angry about the fact that the ban was passed as an emergency ordinance because that cuts down on the amount of time that people have to give input. And, also, because there are no abortion clinics in Lebanon, it didn't seem like a pressing issue time wise.

Chris: Are these ordinances even legal?

Erin: So the legality of it is still unclear. The Ohio Right to Life president, Mike Gonidakis, has said that there's no grounds for litigation in Lebanon because there's no party that's been harmed since there are no clinics. But Jessie Hill, a law professor at Case Western, said that the ban is still unconstitutional. So in the meantime, it's largely symbolic until someone decides to mount a lawsuit.

Chris: Has this affected local businesses?

Erin: Yeah. There have been calls on social media to boycott Lebanon businesses in response to the ban. Main Street Lebanon, a downtown development organization conducted a survey to sort of assess the impact of the reduced pandemic restrictions, but also the environment in the city in response to the ban. They have one hundred and forty six members and thirty eight responded to the survey. So it's not exhaustive. But overall, the respondents reported that their sales in June 2021 were worse than sales in 2020 and in 2019. And eleven retail businesses reported a decrease in sales in 2021 compared to 2020. So sales were worse this year than last year when there were more pandemic restrictions. I should note that Lebanon City Council members have said in response to the survey result that the feedback they've received has been overwhelmingly in favor of the ban. They said they've heard from people that have come specifically to buy in Lebanon because they want to support the city.

Chris: You've mentioned that you've spoken to some residents. What's your impression? Is it kind of divided right now? Are there some people that are in favor of this and support the city council members? Are there other people that are kind of opposing this?

Erin: Yes, it’s a pretty evenly split issue. At the Mason council meeting a few weeks ago, there were over a hundred and fifty people in attendance and over 60 people speaking during public comment. It was pretty split among people arguing in favor of having a ban and people against it. It's a really contentious issue. The atmosphere at the meeting was really charged. There was bickering among the audience about seats and blocking other people's views and a lot of cross talk between the audience and Mayor Grossman. The mayor actually had to adjourn the meeting at 11:30 pm on advice from the police officers in attendance.

Chris: So can you talk a little bit more about that, that scene at the Mason City Council meeting a few weeks ago? I understand there were protests outside and then, like you said, there were disruptions inside during the meeting.

Erin: There were so many people that the council chambers exceeded capacity and the city had to set up two overflow rooms, and the audience was sort of standing at the back of the council chamber as people were pressing signs and baby balloons against the glass wall in the windows. It wasn't just Mason residents in attendance, there were activists from Students for Life and there were people from Pro-choice Ohio. People got in front of the podium and told very personal stories about their own histories and their own feelings on abortion.

Some people also felt that it was outside of the city's purview to pass a ban like this, other people felt like council members were taking a necessary step to protect lives. So it's a very emotional issue for all of the protesters that I spoke to.

Chris: Where do you think this goes next?

Erin: Mayor Kathy Grossman of Mason has said that she thinks the ordinance will come up in committee again before it's brought up to council. She said she wants to bring it up in the legislation committee to really make sure it's something that Mason can do legally without encouraging lawsuits against the city.

Environmental reporter Chris Welter is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Chris Welter is the Managing Editor at The Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Chris got his start in radio in 2017 when he completed a six-month training at the Center for Community Voices. Most recently, he worked as a substitute host and the Environment Reporter at WYSO.