2023 Year in Review: Abortion in court and on the Ohio ballot
Ohioans have new constitutionally protected reproductive rights after voters approved a new amendment this fall. 2023 has been a big year when it comes to the future of abortion in Ohio.
As 2023 began, Ohio’s law that bans abortion at the point fetal cardiac activity can be detected, around six weeks into pregnancy, had been put on hold by a court and was before the Ohio Supreme Court. Supporters of abortion rights knew they wanted to put a constitutional amendment before voters. The question was when – this year when there were no big statewide candidate races, or next year when the presidential and U.S. Senate races will be on the ballot.
Dr. Erica Beene, leader of a group of doctors seeking abortion rights, said in February the issue couldn’t wait.
“Ohioans are perilously close to losing access to safe, legal, comprehensive, reproductive medical care," Beene said.
Beene and the other doctors, along with a coalition of abortion providers and Democrats, started gathering signatures for the amendment that would enshrine abortion and reproductive rights into the constitution. Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis, who staunchly opposed the amendment, seemed to welcome the opportunity for the public to weigh in.
“We are prepared to have this debate. We want Ohioans to go to the ballot box to determine when life should be protected,” Gonidakis said.
But at the same time in the spring, Gonidakis and Republican officeholders were pushing another strategy that would have made it harder for Ohioans to pass an abortion amendment. An amendment to require 60% voter approval was put onto the ballot in August by Republican state lawmakers, despite the fact that a GOP-backed law eliminating most August special elections took effect in April. Hundreds came to the Statehouse to protest.
Republican leaders who backed that amendment said it would make sure special interests stay out of the constitution. But every once in a while, they would talk about the other reason - a looming abortion amendment would likely have trouble meeting a 60% threshold. In July, the abortion rights amendment was approved for the fall ballot.
So abortion rights advocates such as Kellie Copeland, executive director for Pro-Choice Ohio, hit the streets, campaigning for a "no" vote in August and a "yes" vote in November.
“If we need to beat back a 60% threshold and pass a reproductive freedom initiative at the same time, we will," Copeland said.
And they did. With the failure of Issue 1 in August, Issue 1 in November only needed a simple majority to pass.
The Republican-dominated Ohio Ballot Board decided the language voters would see on the ballot for Issue 1 would be different than the amendment itself. And the board used the term “unborn child” in the summary instead of "fetus," the term used in the amendment, over the objection of Issue 1 supporter Lauren Blauvelt with Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights.
“The summary that was adopted by the ballot board was intentionally misleading," Blauvelt said.
But the Ohio Supreme Court disagreed and allowed the language to stand with only a minor tweak. Just before early voting began, the high court heard arguments on two technical questions involving the state’s six-week ban. With no decision on that coming, the big battle over the ban was in the court of public opinion.
On Nov. 7, nearly 58% of Ohio voters passed Issue 1. While backers of the amendment cheered and shared tears of joy, some opponents immediately suggested unusual strategies to fight back. A few Republicans proposed seizing authority from courts to determine what happens to abortion-related laws and keeping that power themselves—an idea House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) dampened quickly.
“This is 'schoolhouse rock' type stuff. We need to make sure we have the three branches of government," Stephen said.
Democratic lawmakers have proposed legislation to get rid of unconstitutional abortion laws, but majority Republicans say it’s now up to courts to decide that. Freda Levenson with the ACLU of Ohio said that’s about to happen.
“We can look forward to challenges to those restrictions and probably courts striking down some of those restrictions in the coming months or years," Levenson said.
In mid-December, the Ohio Supreme Court dismissed the case involving the six-week ban, sending it back to the Hamilton County Court that put it on hold in the first place. There's no word on when that court might rule on the constitutionality of the six-week ban.