Republicans in Ohio, confident they are unchallenged rulers of what has become a solidly red state, may be laboring under a misconception.
The Buckeye State will vote November 7th 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 until viability, usually twenty-two to twenty-four 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.
The anti-abortion movement won a seminal victory last year, when in Dobbs, a Samuel Alito-led U.S. Supreme Court majority overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, 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 reproductive 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 voted 59% against repealing reproductive rights.
Ohio is the most-watched state this year.
Opponents of reproductive rights have thrown a variety of themes and tactics against the wall, hoping something will stick. A church-state alliance has formed, with Republican Governor Mike DeWine and Cleveland’s Catholic Bishop Edward Malesic appearing together to raise money for amendment foes.
The first blocking move came in August.
Ohioans were asked to vote on a measure which would have required a “supermajority” of sixty 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, 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 scheme by a 55%-45% percent 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.”
Of course, the vote on November 7th 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, decreeing no abortion care after a fetus’ heartbeat is detected. Informally known as “the heartbeat bill,” its implementation has been held up by a court challenge.
A political strategy, long deployed by trailing campaigns, has been: Create confusion, then conquer. Its deployment often begins with a confusing or deceptive ballot title, often all that some voters bother to look at.
In Washington, Tim Eyman has taken advantage of lax rules for ballot titles, with court battles fought over how his initiatives have been presented to voters.
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 is slated to say that 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 argues that the ballot language makes 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 that voters 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.”
Its tactical acumen hasn’t improved much since. The church spent $6 million in Michigan last year, and lost. The Archdiocese of Kansas City put $2.45 into the Kansas battle. Anti-abortion forces also lost in Kentucky.
The church has already given $900,000 to Protect Women Ohio, which opposes 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 group is pressing 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 Attorney General’s office, argues on the Protect Ohio Women website.
Ohio is one of thirty-six 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 challenged before 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 The Associated Press: “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 Senator Sherrod Brown, a pro-reproductive rights 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 has dialed up parental rights – believing the issue elected a Republican governor in Virginia – as well as the demonizing of gender surgery and trans teens participating in women’s spots.
Confusion faces an uphill battle as anti-abortion forces try to win in Buckeye State and expand government power over reproductive rights.
Polls show majority support for reproductive rights, with Catholic voters reflecting the national mood. Next-door Michigan went pro-liberty in a big way last year.
So did Kentucky, across the Ohio River.
The Ohio vote on Issue 1 in November will be an early bellwether on the force of reproductive rights in a seminal election next year.