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Analysis: The Supreme Court gave abortion rights to states. Nan Whaley wants Ohio voters to have their say

Nan Whaley, former mayor of Dayton, responds to a question in the Ohio Gubernatorial Democratic Primary Debate at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, March 29, 2022.
Meg Vogel
The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP, Pool
Nan Whaley, former mayor of Dayton, responds to a question in the Ohio Gubernatorial Democratic Primary Debate at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, March 29, 2022.

There are plenty of people in Ohio — quite possibly a majority — who support abortion rights and who would like to turn the clock back to June 23, the day before the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade and took away the right of women to choose abortion.

Next year, they may have the chance to do just that.

Nan Whaley, the former Dayton mayor who is the Democratic candidate for Ohio governor, has said that if she becomes the first woman elected Ohio governor, she will use her bully pulpit to lead a petition initiative to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2023 that would restore abortion rights in Ohio.

It would be a complete run-around the conservative Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly who are gearing up to pass legislation that would make Ohio's Heartbeat Bill — which bans abortion once fetal heartbeat is detected — look positively liberal.

"It's really very simple," Whaley said. "We just restore the rights that women had under Roe v. Wade and put them in the state constitution."

But, while the concept of writing abortion rights into the state constitution may be simple, the path to getting there is not.

It would be a long, arduous process of spending millions of dollars to gather hundreds of thousand of signatures, with no guarantee of success.

Whaley, though, is in the process of building support for a ballot initiative. She's already had conversations with Ohio's Planned Parenthood organization, Pro-Choice Ohio and the Ohio Democratic Party.

"Everyone I talk to wants to see this happen," Whaley said. "I'm on the ground in Ohio and it is the only thing anybody is talking about."

WVXU reached out to Ohio Right to Life but did not receive a response by press time.

Still, though, putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot in Ohio is a monumental task, requiring tens of millions of dollars and months of canvassing the state for signatures.

It would likely be an effort of a coalition of abortion rights groups, and it might be a challenge getting everybody to agree on ballot language. Whaley wants to keep it simple, but she may not get what she wants.

In order to make the ballot, backers of the constitutional amendment would need to collect signatures from 10% of those who vote in the November race for Ohio governor. The number is currently 442,958 from at least 44 of Ohio's 88 counties, but that number could go up or down, depending on turnout in the governor's race.

As for Whaley leading the charge, she first has to push a very large boulder up a very steep hill to win the governor's office over Republican incumbent Mike DeWine, who has been running for one office or another in nearly every election cycle since 1976 — the year Whaley was born.

Polling in the race makes it pretty clear that Whaley is an underdog.

A USA Today Ohio Network/Suffolk University poll in early June showed Whaley trailing DeWine by 16 percentage points, with about 13% undecided.

"I expect to win this race; and, when we win, it will just feed the movement," Whaley said. "To have a pro-choice Democratic woman in the governor's office would make all the difference in a petition initiative."

Michigan, Whaley said, is already doing the same thing she wants to do in Ohio, under the leadership of a Democratic woman governor, Gretchen Whitmer, who is running for a second term this year.

DeWine hasn't said much on the dismantling of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court, except to give Ohioans some free advice in a brief video appearance the afternoon of the decision. Both sides, DeWine said, should respect each other's opinions.

But DeWine has spent his whole career as an ardent Right to Life politician. When a very restrictive abortion bill lands on his desk, it's a safe bet he would sign it into law.

And that, for abortion rights advocates like Whaley, is reason enough for a sense of urgency about a constitutional amendment.

There's no question that getting something on the ballot is one heavy load to lift. But not impossibly heavy.

And that same USA Today Ohio Network/Suffolk University Poll that showed DeWine with a double-digit lead over Whaley also had 53% of Ohio's likely voters saying they support abortion rights, while 39% said the legislature should restrict access to abortion.

If you are trying to win an argument, it's always a good thing to start with over half the audience in agreement with you.

Copyright 2022 91.7 WVXU

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.