Ohio voters enshrine abortion access in constitution in latest statewide win for reproductive rights

Supporters of Issue 1 cheer at a watch party, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Columbus Ohio. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Supporters of Issue 1 cheer at a watch party, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Columbus Ohio. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment on Tuesday that ensures access to abortion and other forms of reproductive health care, the latest victory for abortion rights supporters since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.

Ohio became the seventh state where voters decided to protect abortion access after the landmark ruling and was the only state to consider a statewide abortion rights question this year.

"The future is bright, and tonight we can celebrate this win for bodily autonomy and reproductive rights," Lauren Blauvelt, co-chair of Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights, which led support for the amendment, told a jubilant crowd of supporters.

The outcome of the intense, off-year election could be a bellwether for 2024, when Democrats hope the issue will energize their voters and help President Joe Biden keep the White House. Voters in Arizona, Missouri and elsewhere are expected to vote on similar protections next year.

Heather Williams, interim president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to state legislatures, said the vote in favor of abortion rights was a "huge victory."

"Ohio's resounding support for this constitutional amendment reaffirms Democratic priorities and sends a strong message to the state GOP that reproductive rights are non-negotiable," she said in a statement.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris issued statements celebrating the amendment's win, saying efforts to ban or severely restrict abortion represent a minority view across the country.

Harris, who rallied Issue 1 supporters during a virtual gathering this past weekend, hinted at how the issue would likely be central to Democrats' campaigning next year for Congress and the presidency, saying "extremists are pushing for a national abortion ban that would criminalize reproductive health care in every single state in our nation."

Ohio's constitutional amendment, on the ballot as Issue 1, included some of the most protective language for abortion access of any statewide ballot initiative since the Supreme Court's ruling. Opponents had argued that the amendment would threaten parental rights, allow unrestricted gender surgeries for minors and revive "partial birth" abortions, which are federally banned.

Public polling shows about two-thirds of Americans say abortion should generally be legal in the earliest stages of pregnancy, a sentiment that has been underscored in both Democratic and deeply Republican states since the justices overturned Roe in June 2022.

Before the Ohio vote, statewide initiatives in California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and Vermont had either affirmed abortion access or turned back attempts to undermine the right.

Two leading national anti-abortion groups said they would learn from Ohio results but would be undeterred in trying to defeat abortion-rights measures planned for next year's ballots.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said her group would focus on promoting "compassionate pro-life messages for women and their children" to counter what she labeled a "campaign of fear" from abortion-rights supporters.

"For us, it's very clear that post-Roe America, our movement is very much a marathon, not a sprint," Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America said.

Voter turnout for Ohio's amendment, including early voting, was robust for an off-year election. Issue 1's approval will all but certainly undo a 2019 state law passed by Republicans that bans most abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected, with no exceptions for rape and incest. That law, currently on hold because of court challenges, is one of roughly two dozen restrictions on abortion the Ohio Legislature has passed in recent years.

Republicans and the state-level anti-abortion groups that worked to defeat the amendment remained defiant in the wake of Tuesday's vote. Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens said Issue 1's approval "is not the end of the conversation."

"As a 100% pro-life conservative, I remain steadfastly committed to protecting life, and that commitment is unwavering," Stephens said. "The Legislature has multiple paths that we will explore to continue to protect innocent life."

Previously, state Senate President Matt Huffman, a Republican, has suggested that lawmakers could come back with another proposed amendment next year that would undo Issue 1, although they would have only a six-week window after Election Day to get it on the 2024 primary ballot.

"We don't have time to lick our wounds," said Mark Harrington, president of the Ohio anti-abortion group Created Equal. "In the coming days, we'll process what led to this defeat. But if abortion doesn't stop, neither do we."

Issue 1 specifically declared an individual's right to "make and carry out one's own reproductive decisions," including birth control, fertility treatments, miscarriage and abortion.

It allowed the state to regulate the procedure after fetal viability, as long as exceptions were provided for cases in which a doctor determined the "life or health" of the woman was at risk. Viability was defined as the point when the fetus had "a significant likelihood of survival" outside the womb, with reasonable interventions.

Anti-abortion groups, with the help of Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, tested a variety of messages to try to defeat the amendment, primarily focusing on the idea that the proposal was too extreme for the state. The supporters' campaign centered on a message of keeping government out of families' private affairs.

The latest vote followed an August special election called by the Republican-controlled Legislature that was aimed at making future constitutional changes harder to pass by increasing the threshold from a simple majority vote to 60%. That proposal was aimed in part at undermining the abortion-rights measure decided Tuesday.

Voters overwhelmingly defeated that special election question, setting the stage for the high-stakes fall abortion campaign.

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Associated Press writers Samantha Hendrickson in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, and Michelle L. Price and Christine Fernando in Washington contributed to this report.

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