Ohio health department fires employee for mention of abortion pill in newsletter

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When she came across a training opportunity on mifepristone, a drug used for early miscarriage and pregnancy loss, Jessica Warner reported it in the May issue of a newsletter that she compiled as a coordinator at the Ohio Department of Health.

An hour after hitting send, her supervisor called. It was the beginning of an ordeal that culminated in Warner, a sexually transmitted infection and viral hepatitis training coordinator, being fired and two other disciplining employees. An investigative report prepared by Human Resources described abortion topics as “taboo,” adding that “the mifepristone component of the newsletter is in direct conflict with the agency’s mission and is an embarrassment to ODH.” She also said that the matter was “contrary to” the mission of the state.

Warner said the state Department of Health taking such a stance came as a shock.

“I want people to understand how politics seems to dominate health care, and it’s not about science and evidence,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday, five days after she finished her job. “And it seems to be more about people without a background in healthcare who make our decisions and even censor and silence us.”

Most common abortion procedures and when they occur

Ohio Department of Health spokesman Ken Gordon said there is no policy that keeps abortion topics out of bounds. He said references to abortion as inconsistent with the health department’s mission are based on state law that took effect in 2019, which bars the department from contracting or affiliated with “any entity that performs or promotes non-therapeutic abortions.”

Warner’s supervisor received a suspension and her supervisor resigned, according to the Ohio Capital Journal, which first reported the incident.

The fallout comes as the nation prepares for a possible reversal Raw vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that enshrined the right to abortion throughout the United States. With a draft opinion indicating judges voted to overturn it, conservative states are racing to enact bans and restrictions that have been unenforceable for nearly 50 years.

But the national right to abortion is currently still in effect, raising questions about the state Department of Health’s clear anti-abortion stance. The Capital Journal reported that two bipartisan leaders on the Ohio House Health Committee, along with lobbyists on both sides of the issue, were unaware that the agency had an official position.

Gordon said that Warner’s shooting was “essentially based on a pattern of recurring insurgent activity rather than any single subject or incident.” He added that the Human Resources Department’s investigation concluded that her newsletter had not been subject to editorial review as required under the department’s policy.

The newsletter was sent to about 400 subscribers including local health departments and community organizations, most of whom were involved in the fight against HIV and sexually transmitted infections and in public health. It included resources, program updates, and information on the incidence and rates of STDs in Ohio.

The investigative report, shared with The Post by Warner and the Department of Health, flags newsletter content other than the abortion pill: mentions National Masturbation Month; gay elders day; International Day Against Homophobia; Day of Seeing the Pensexual and the Wanderer; SLAM (Sexuality, Editors, and Movers); and an event titled “Black and Blue: Suicide in Our Leather, Cross, and Gay Societies”; National Condom Month.

Warner, who was appointed in 2019, argued that the department could not focus on reducing sexually transmitted diseases without recognizing gender. She said research shows that a more positive approach is more effective than focusing on risks, and noted that Ohio is seeing increasing cases of syphilis and other STDs.

“My program was going to give people the skills and resources to do that, and that was controversial,” Warner, 36, said.

Much of the investigative report focused on the May 6 bulletin on mifepristone. The newsletter said applications were due on May 15 for the training, called ExPAND Mifepristone. The program is operated by the University of Chicago and is described as “developed to support the evidence-based use of mifepristone for early pregnancy loss (EPL) and/or abortion in primary care settings.” Warner said she included it because she thought local health department staff might be interested in it.

Her supervisor said she should have known better.

“Everyone in the unit should have known that any reference to abortions should not be discussed or included in the newsletter or other unit information,” Warner’s supervisor told HR investigators, calling her an “advocate.”

If Roe v. Wade is invalidated, the legality of abortion will be left to the states. Some worry that access to certain types of contraception may be next. (Video: Julie Yoon, Hadley Green, Sarah Hashmi/The Washington Post)

Final action on legalizing abortion across states

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (right) in 2019 signed a bill banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy — one of the most restrictive laws in the country. A federal judge has banned it as unconstitutional under Ro.

“Ohio is a pro-life state,” DeWine told WLWT5 last month, adding that he would consider passing more legislation if Ro flipped over.

At the request of her supervisor, Warner sent a “corrected” copy two hours after the newsletter was released, that copy containing the mifepristone piece was deleted. According to the Ohio Department of Health, the local health commissioner contacted a state health department employee with questions about the matter, which led to an investigation into whether the newsletter topics had been properly and appropriately screened.

The report said Warner was “unapologetic” when interviewed by Human Resources. She told investigators that the Department of Health had been prevented from working with Planned Parenthood “because it appears that politicians’ ignorance and opinions are impeding the provision of access to essential health care for Ohioans.”

When asked if the topic of mifepristone would conflict with the mission of the State Department of Health, she replied, “I hope this is not a public health problem, and as a public health worker, it would be counterproductive to the mission of ODH not to support health care initiatives.”

She told The Post that she plans to fight her expulsion.

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