Mar 23, 2023 - News

Inside the fight over abortion rights in Ohio

Protestors hold up signs calling for abortion rights.

A battle that will continue until November and maybe beyond. Photo: Whitney Saleski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The battle over a proposed amendment for abortion rights in Ohio intensified this week with legal maneuvering and a trained army of volunteers at the forefront.

Why it matters: If the amendment makes it to the November ballot and voters approve it, it would preserve abortion access in a state that's been a conservative front for opposing abortion.

Zoom in: The citizen-initiated amendment is driven by two groups — Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights and Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom — which hit the ground running after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022.

  • The physicians organization began as a Facebook group that's grown to more than 1,400 members, while Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom is a coalition of longstanding pro-abortion rights groups, including Planned Parenthood and the Abortion Fund of Ohio.

What they're saying: "This is a big campaign, especially with a political landscape like Ohio," Jordyn Close, board president for Abortion Fund of Ohio, tells Axios. "It's an all-hands-on-deck situation. The more people we have working toward reproductive freedom, the better."

Between the lines: The groups are intentionally targeting the November 2023 ballot rather than waiting until 2024, when the amendment could draw more anti-abortion rights attention in a wave of regional and national campaigning.

  • Lauren Beene, executive director of Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights, tells Axios that Ohio's "heartbeat" abortion law, which prohibits the procedure after six weeks of gestation, was a major concern.
  • A county judge put the law on hold in October, but Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost is appealing the decision to the Ohio Supreme Court. If the appeal is successful, Beene says, "we'll have a crisis that will be in place for an unbearable amount of time."

The latest: Last week, the Ohio Ballot Board certified the proposed amendment. Organizers now face the task of collecting more than 413,000 valid signatures from registered voters by July 5.

Yes, but: The signatures must come from voters in at least half of the state's 88 counties, meaning they cannot all be collected in larger, bluer regions.

  • Beene says more than 1,500 volunteers have been trained so far and will be supplemented by paid gatherers. The goal is to obtain at least 700,000 signatures.

The other side: Opponents of abortion rights have responded with multiple efforts of their own, including a $5 million ad buy from Protect Women Ohio and a lawsuit from Cincinnati Right to Life seeking to vacate the Ohio Ballot Board's certification.

Meanwhile, Ohio Senate Republicans are considering a proposal for a special election in August to increase the votes needed to amend the state constitution from a simple majority to 60%.

  • The proposal would also require petitioners to get voter signatures from all 88 counties instead of 44 and eliminate the 10-day period in which more signatures can be gathered should the initial attempt fall short.

The big picture: A 60% threshold could prove crucial, as polling results from Baldwin Wallace University in October showed 59% of Ohio registered voters would support a constitutional amendment for abortion rights.

The intrigue: In a letter obtained by in December, the resolution's sponsor Rep. Brian Stewart wrote to his fellow House Republicans "the Left intends to write abortion on demand into Ohio's Constitution."

  • "If they succeed, all the work accomplished by multiple Republican majorities will be undone, and we will return to 19,000+ babies being aborted each and every year," Stewart wrote in the letter.

What's next: Close says the focus over the next eight months will be on gathering signatures and campaigning for a possible August special election and the amendment vote in November.

  • "This kind of response from people who continue to strip Ohioans of their bodily autonomy isn't new to us," Close says. "We're so excited to be at this point and are focused on keeping our campaign going."

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