By Greg Moore
Ohio will be ground zero in the national abortion rights battle this fall when voters across the state will vote on a closely watched constitutional amendment to enshrine abortion rights into the Ohio Constitution. The statewide Ballot Issue 1, officially entitled “The Right to Make Reproductive Decisions Including Abortion Initiative” was certified on July 24. Supporters submitted 495,930 valid signatures from 55 counties, more than enough to qualify for the November 7th ballot.
Ohio Issue 1 in November seeks to enshrine the right to reproductive freedom into the Ohio Constitution in response to the 2022 landmark U.S. Supreme Court Dobbs v. Women’s Health Organization decision overturning the longstanding Roe v. Wade ruling. The Dobbs decision overturned over 50 years of precedent leaving abortion rights or restrictions up to each state to decide.
The “Vote Yes on Issue 1” effort is being led by Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights (OURR), a broad-based, statewide coalition that includes supporters of the successful “Vote NO on Issue 1, One Person One Vote” campaign. A July statewide poll conducted by Suffolk University/USA Today showed that 58% of Ohio voters statewide supported the proposed constitutional amendment that was certified for placement on the November ballot.
Despite strong support in polling among voters across the state, supporters of the constitutional amendment are facing tactical opposition by Republican lawmakers and pro-life opponents in the lead-up to the election. Political opponents of Issue 1 are being led by Ohio Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose and a coalition of pro-life groups led by the Ohio Right to Life coalition. All have worked for months to oppose the amendment by orchestrating a series of legislative and administrative tactics to ensure its defeat.
The primary tactic included the placement of a constitutional amendment on the ballot in an Aug. 8 special election to change the percentage threshold for passage of future constitutional amendments from 50% to 60%. Voters across the state of Ohio soundly defeated the measure 57 to 43%. In the aftermath of that defeat, abortion opponents again led by Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose took steps to adjust the ballot language from the initiative that was circulated to voters. As chair of the Ohio Ballot Board, which is responsible for the approval of the final language on the November ballot, LaRose and other abortion rights opponents voted 3-2 along partisan lines to make substantive changes to the ballot language that differed from the language circulated statewide by supporters of Issue 1.
OURR supporters cried foul after working for over a year gathering signatures and building widespread support across the state utilizing their carefully crafted language. On August 28, the Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Secretary Frank LaRose and the Ohio Ballot Board asserting that the new ballot language word choice “serves to sway voters against the Amendment.” The suit claimed that the language proposed by the ballot board was “incomplete, inaccurate, and misleading.”
The OURR coalition also challenged the board’s removal of language that listed additional reproductive rights that their original language covered. Most notably they opposed the exclusion of “the right to contraception, fertility treatment, miscarriage care, and continuing one’s pregnancy” among the rights being enshrined into the constitution. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit argued that the ballot board-approved language “fails to capture the full substance of the amendment and only names abortion even though [the] amendment’s protections extend but are not limited to reproductive decisions.” The other major change to the original amendment’s language included removing the medical term used throughout the original language from “fetus” to the more emotionally charged term “unborn child,” throughout the ballot amendment. The suit called on the Ohio Supreme Court to intervene and make an expedited ruling that would restore the original language submitted. Despite the outcome of the court’s final ruling, Issue 1 supporters vowed to continue their education and awareness campaign across the state.
Abortion rights advocates pointed to the failed attempt to change the percentage requirement for passing a constitutional amendment in the Aug. 8 election, and the Republican-controlled Ballot Board’s efforts to dramatically alter the ballot language, as similarly misguided attempts by opponents to undermine the will of Ohio voters.
In reaction to the language change, OURR spokesperson Lauren Blauvelt released a statement saying that “anti-abortion extremists and Secretary of State Frank LaRose today exploited the Ohio Ballot Board process in a last-ditch effort to deceive and confuse Ohio voters ahead of the November vote on reproductive freedom.” Blauvelt went on to assert that “Anti-abortion extremists and politicians have repeatedly tried to mislead and deceive voters in their unending quest to eliminate Ohioans’ freedom. In a 137-page court filing, OURR asked the court to direct the board to “reconvene and adopt ballot language that properly and lawfully describes the Amendment.”
In response to the changes to the language by the Ballot Board, Ohio Right to Life president Mike Gonidakis asserted that “…people are going to make up their minds before they go in the ballot box anyways, and they’re not going to go in and then try to figure out what they want to do by reading something on a screen,” he said. Earlier statements by the Ohio Right to Life coalition had asserted that Issue 1, if passed in November, would “Enshrine abortion until birth and remove all protections for the preborn—including a parent’s ability to stop their child from being pressured into an abortion.”
Opposition to the abortion rights amendment has been building within the pro-life community for many months. As early as July 25, the Ohio Right to Life’s CEO, Peter Range, released a statement asserting that “This extreme anti-life, anti-parent amendment from the ACLU provides no protections for the preborn through all nine months of pregnancy and attacks a parent’s right even to know if their child is seeking an abortion.”
The central question that remains unanswered by both sides of the issue is whether voters from across the state who voted No on Issue 1 on Aug. 8 will parlay their strong support for maintaining a simple majority to pass a constitutional amendment into a YES on Issue 1 on Nov. 7 in support of enshrining abortion rights into the same constitution.
There is also growing concern among abortion rights supporters that the “Vote No on Issue 1” campaign in the Aug. 8 election will confuse some voters who are supporters of abortion rights but might confuse it with the “Vote Yes on Issue 1” campaign in the fall. Educating voters about the differences between the two issues is a top priority among abortion rights supporters and opponents.