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Why Some Cities Are Using Zoning Laws to Restrict Abortion Access

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A sign hangs above a Planned Parenthood clinic on May 18th, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Almost as soon as the Supreme Court‘s Roe v. Wade decision enshrined a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester, Cleveland, Ohio, found a subtle way to flout it.

In December, 1973—the same month and year Roe was confirmed—Cleveland’s City Council passed an ordinance that regulated which facilities could offer abortion services. Most were related to the medical procedure itself: guidelines around lab equipment, practitioners, and recovery facilities. To get a license to open, clinics would also have to undergo an inspection and pay a fee.

But when a clinic offering affordable abortions, West Side Women’s Services, came close to opening on Cleveland’s west side in 1977, the city introduced an emergency amendment to the ordinance: No abortion clinics would be granted a license to operate in local retail business districts.

The intention was clear. If the abortion clinic couldn’t be licensed, it couldn’t operate. And without it, Cleveland residents would find it much harder to get the care they sought.

After a legal challenge, the abortion licensing ordinance held, but Cleveland’s emergency amendment was ruled unconstitutional by the state court. It violated Roe by creating an undue burden, wrote Elizabeth B. Meyer in an Urban Law Annual Journal paper in 1987, and besides, “the city had failed to present any evidence of a specific purpose for the emergency ordinance or threat to health, safety, and welfare.”

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