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The results show the continuing resonance of the issue more than a year after Roe v. Wade was overturned.
Supporters of Ohio Issue 1 cheer as results come in at a watch party hosted by Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights on Nov. 7, 2023 in Columbus, Ohio. | Andrew Spear/Getty Images
Ohio voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to enshrine protections for reproductive health services, including abortion, in the state constitution — the latest in a post-Roe streak of ballot box wins for the abortion rights movement.
The Associated Press called the race less than two hours after polls closed, and early counts showed the abortion rights initiative leading by double digits.
The results follow a long, bitter and expensive campaign that shows the continuing resonance of the issue more than a year after Roe v. Wade was overturned and the strength of ballot measures as a tool for advancing abortion rights in GOP-dominated states.
The resounding victory comes despite a myriad of advantages for the anti-abortion camp heading into Election Day.
Gov. Mike DeWine cut ads for the “No” campaign calling the ballot measure “extreme,” and suggested he would push the legislature to add rape and incest exemptions to the state’s six-week ban if the referendum were defeated.
The official website for the GOP-controlled state legislature published posts claiming the amendment would “legalize abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy” and allow for “the dismemberment of fully conscious children” — echoing the disputed talking points of the campaign against the amendment.
Secretary of State and Senate hopeful Frank LaRose also crafted a ballot summary that abortion rights supporters decried as biased and misleading — including changing the word “fetus” to “unborn child” and removing references to protections for non-abortion services like contraception and fertility treatments.
LaRose also spearheaded August’s failed special election that would have made it more difficult to amend the state constitution and his office purged tens of thousands of inactive voters from the rolls after early voting for the November election was already underway and the deadline to reregister had passed.
Anti-abortion groups campaigning against the amendment focused on many of the same arguments that failed in six other states’ abortion ballot fights last year — including claims, disputed by their opponents, that the measure’s passage would strip away parental consent laws and all limits on abortions later in pregnancy.
But Ohio conservatives also shaped their strategy in response to those 2022 losses. They invested, for example, in targeted outreach to Black voters, students, and people who identify as “pro-choice” and encouraged early and absentee voting.
They were outraised, however, by abortion rights groups, which raked in triple the donations and purchased significantly more TV time. Most of the money on both sides came from out of state, with a group affiliated with Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America providing more than half of the funding for the anti-abortion campaign and several national groups pouring millions into the abortion rights campaign’s coffers, including the ACLU, the Sixteen Thirty Fund and Open Society Policy Center.’’
The abortion rights referendum also benefited from the support of thousands of members of the state’s influential medical community. Doctors and medical students led the effort to gather signatures to get the measure on the ballot, wrote open letters, appeared in ads, and launched a door-knocking campaign they called “house calls.” Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights, which formed last year in response to the state’s ban taking effect, said the vast majority of its members had never engaged in political advocacy.
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“This is a direct attack on the profession of medicine — whether you’re a radiologist, a dermatologist, or an OB-GYN,” said Dr. Arthur Lavin, a Cleveland-based abortion rights pediatrician who was among dozens of doctors canvassing in the weeks leading up to Election Day. “Dermatologists and pediatricians will never actually conduct miscarriage care or manage fertility care and such, but we know that if we are silent when millions of people are put into positions of cruelty, our turn will come next. Some officials could get a bee in their bonnet and decide to impose their beliefs on our specialty to again interrupt the vital and deep connection between patient and doctor.”
Supriya Mahajan, a specialist in behavioral neurology based in northern Ohio, said she got involved out of concern for her patients with cognitive impairments who are at high risk for sexual assault.“These instances come up routinely — you would not believe the amount of domestic violence that I learn of and the rapes people sustain that they tell me about,” she said. “So it’s not only OB-GYNs who have a stake in this.”
Abortion rights advocates who campaigned for the amendment said they hope it will do more than merely maintain current law allowing the procedure up until 22 weeks of pregnancy.
Nicole Morino, the Ohio field organizer for the group Catholics for Choice, said getting rid of the state’s 24-hour waiting period and blocking insurance coverage of abortion are two priorities.abortion rights She said those laws forced her to make multiple long drives to an abortion clinic and borrow money from family and friends to afford the procedure in 2016, which contributed to a months-long delay in securing an appointment.
With the amendment approved, conservatives fear that Ohio abortion rights will follow Michigan, which is now debating rolling back some abortion restrictions following passage of its own referendum in 2022.
“This is a case study and a warning for what will happen in Ohio,” said Amy Natoce, the spokesperson for Protect Women Ohio, one of many anti-abortion advocates who invoked Michigan as a cautionary tale in their campaign against the Ohio referendum.
DeWine on abortion: Ohio’s Issue 1 goes ‘much too far’SharePlay Video
But the balance of power in Ohio is vastly different from Michigan, and the odds of stripping away abortion restrictions are slim even in the wake of the measure’s passage.abortion rights The Ohio state legislature is likely to keep its Republican supermajority for the foreseeable future after maps favoring GOP lawmakers were approved earlier this year. The state’s supreme court is also dominated by conservatives.
And even in Michigan, where Democrats control the legislature and governor’s mansion, the party was unable to advance some of its top abortion rights priorities — including abolishing the state’s waiting period and banning Medicaid coverage of the procedure.
Still, abortion rights supporters in Ohio hope that their work on the referendum fight paves the way for more victories next year, when some of the state’s few surviving Democratic representatives will be up for reelection.
“This fight was absolutely critical for building capacity ahead of races that could determine control of both chambers of Congress,” said Matt Caffrey, the Columbus-based organizing director for the progressive group Swing Left. “We had so many first-time canvassers as well as people who haven’t been involved in a long time because they grew cynical or pessimistic. This is giving people reason to hope again and to take action.”
Caffrey argued that if the volunteers they mobilized for the referendum campaign stay active going into 2024, they can avoid a repeat of the 2022 Senate race, when Republican J.D. Vance beat Democrat Tim Ryan by six points.
“If we keep organizing at this level, we can overcome that kind of deficit,” he said. “It requires people to believe and to donate and to volunteer, and this is giving people that motivation.”