Republicans in Ohio, confident they are unchallenged rulers of what has become a solidly red state, may be laboring under a misconception. The abortion issue is front-and-center on this off-year electoral calendar, and that may backfire politically.
The Buckeye State will vote November 7 on Issue 1, an amendment to the Ohio Constitution which proclaims: “Every individual has a right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive rights.” The decisions include contraception, fertility treatment, continuing one’s own pregnancy, miscarriage, and abortion.
The right to abortion would extend up to viability, usually 22 to 24 weeks, while a pregnancy could be terminated at a later stage if a treating physician determines that the abortion is necessary to protect a pregnant woman’s life or health. A USA Today/Suffolk University poll in July showed 58 percent support for the proposed amendment. That mismatch has opponents reaching into their bag of political tricks.
The anti-abortion movement won a seminal victory last year, when a 6-3 U.S. Supreme Court majority overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, thereby denying American women the right to an abortion and throwing questions of regulation and prohibition back to the states.
When voters have been given a choice, however, they have voted for choice. Michigan enshrined abortion rights in its constitution last year, and voters flipped legislative control to the Democrats. In a summer election, scheduled by abortion opponents to minimize turnout, conservative Kansas turned thumbs down on repealing abortion rights and by a 59-41 percent margin.
Ohio is the most-watched state this year. Opponents of abortion rights need a win in a state whose government they dominate. They have thrown a variety of themes and tactics against the wall, hoping something will stick. A church-state alliance has formed, with GOP Gov. Mike DeWine and Cleveland’s Catholic Bishop Edward Malesic appearing at fundraisers to raise money for amendment foes.
The first blocking move came in August, when the state fielded a ballot measure asking Ohioans to require a “supermajority” of 60 percent to amend the Ohio Constitution, as well as mandating that initiative campaigns submit signatures from every county in Ohio. An Illinois billionaire, Richard Uihlein, known for financing the Republican Party in Wisconsin, poured $4 million into the supermajority campaign. A “Rosary Rally” was held in Cincinnati featuring actor Jim Caviezel and Planned Parenthood staffer-turned-prolife Abby Johnson.
Ohioans voted down the supermajority plan by a 55-45 margin. The measure was, in President Biden’s words, “a blatant attempt to weaken voters’ choices and further erode the freedom of women to make their own health care decisions.”
The upcoming Ohio vote on November 7 has major human consequences as well as its national political implications. Abortion has been legal in Ohio up to viability. The Ohio Legislature, Republican-controlled and heavily gerrymandered, last year passed a six-week ban, saying no abortions after a fetus’ heartbeat is detected. Informally known as “the heartbeat bill,” its implementation has been held up by a court challenge.
Campaigns that face strong opposition have for years resorted to a simple political strategy: create confusion, then conquer. Its deployment often begins with a confusing or deceptive ballot title, all that some voters bother to look at. In Washington, Tim Eyman has taken advantage of misleading title language, leading to court battles over how his initiatives appear on the ballot.
The gambit is being applied in the Buckeye State. The Ohio Ballot Board has substituted the phrase “unborn child” for “fetus,” and worded ballot language in such away to suggest that Issue 1 green lights late term abortions. The ballot says Issue 1 would prohibit the government from restricting abortion “before the unborn child is determined to be viable,” but would “always allow an unborn child to be aborted at any stage of pregnancy, regardless of viability, if, in the treating physician’s determination, the abortion is necessary to protect the pregnant woman’s life or health.”
Ohioans for Reproductive Rights claim the ballot language delivers an “ethical judgment” about “what stage of development a zygote, embryo, or fetus becomes a child.” The pro-Issue 1 campaign has asked the Ohio Supreme Court to clean up the language, or order voters to be given a full text of the proposed amendment.
In appealing to the court, Ohioans for Reproductive Rights argues: “The ballot language’s length and the context in which it was drafted confirm that the above defects are no accident but are, instead, part of a deliberate attempt to mislead and sway votes.” The group’s spokeswoman, Lauren Blauvelt, is blunt, saying: “The ballot language aims to persuade against the amendment.”
The Catholic Church has invested heavily in state abortion battles, dating all the way back to the 1970 abortion battle in Washington, when billboards showed a fetus with the slogan: “Kill Referendum 20, not me.” The church has not been able to persuade voters or even its own flock. It spent $6 million in Michigan last year — and lost. The Archdiocese of Kansas City put $2.45 million into the Kansas battle. Anti-abortion forces also lost in Kentucky.
The church has already given $900,000 to Protect Women Ohio, which is opposing Issue 1. In a “letter to the faithful,” sent out last month, Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Schnurr explained: “The church must not remain on the sidelines when confronted with such a clear threat to human life and dignity and the primacy of the family.”
Protect Women Ohio is trying out and refining new tactics. Notably, it is directing its videos and arguments at women, whose votes in Michigan and Kansas were overwhelmingly pro-choice. Its slogan: “Help Keep Ohio Safe for Women, Girls, and Babies.”
The anti-amendment group is pressing adjacent hot-button issues, arguing that Issue 1 is an attack on parental rights and might open the way for teens to seek gender surgery. The constitutional amendment would “eliminate parental notification and consent laws that protect minor girls and allow painful abortions up to birth in our state,” Protect Ohio Women proclaims on its web site.
“All of the protected rights are likely to be applied to kids, too, because the [Issue 1] language is not limited to adults: That would make it impossible to require parental consent for abortions or transgender hormones and surgeries,” Megan Wold, a former deputy Solicitor General in the Ohio AG’s office, argues on the Protect Ohio Women website.
Ohio is one of 36 states that has some form of consent law for underage girls to get abortions. The law in Ohio was upheld by the courts when Roe v. Wade was still in effect, and abortion was legal. Should Issue 1 pass, it would need to be successfully upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority.
Tracy Thomas, a University of Akron law professor and director of its Center for Constitutional Law, told Politico: “It’s a straw argument, a false argument that they’re setting up. Children do have constitutional rights but we have lots of examples in the law, both state and federal, where these children’s rights are limited. Marriage is a good example.”
Ohio is our most conservative Rust Belt industrial state, back to days when it voted for Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy. It did back Barack Obama twice but gave substantial majorities to Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. One Democrat able to swim against the red tide has been Sen. Sherrod Brown, a pro-choice populist who is up for reelection next year.
In August, however, both progressive and pro-Trump counties voted against the supermajority requirement. The Issue 1 battle will be fought over a variety of political ecosystems: The state capital of Columbus has been trending progressive. Industrial eastern Ohio, such places as the Mahoning Valley, has swung to Trump. Small manufacturing towns in western Ohio are traditionally Protestant conservative and gave us one very bad and randy president (Warren G. Harding). Greater Cincinnati is a traditional battleground.
The nation’s right-wing media have dialed up parental rights – believing the issue elected a Republican governor in Virginia – as well as demonizing gender surgery and trans teens participating in women’s spots.
The pro-life forces face an uphill battle as anti-abortion forces try to win in Buckeye State and maintain government power over reproductive rights. Polls show majority support for abortion rights, with Catholic voters reflecting the national mood. Next-door Michigan went pro-choice in a big way last year. So did Kentucky, across the Ohio River.
The Ohio vote will be an early bellwether on the force of reproductive rights in the 2024 election. It will be watched by political consultants, but most of all by those expecting unexpectedly.
(A version of this article appeared in the Northwest Progressive Institute’s “Cascadia Advocate.”)