Ohio Voters Advocate for Access to Abortions but May Vote Against It

This is a question that every campaign consultant has received from many skeptical reporters, whether at a press briefing in a dimly lit campaign office, over a cup of coffee at a nearby café, or at a lavish briefing in a dark money-funded conference hall. Of course, hired guns can speak the truth, but shades matter, and nuances tell a bigger story.

In the lead-up to the midterm elections set to take place next week, there's no place where this question is more important than in Ohio, where voters are being asked to consider an amendment to the state constitution that would enshrine reproductive freedoms, including abortion up to the point of fetal viability, with exceptions for the life of the mother. On the surface, this might seem like a significant blow: a similar anti-abortion measure was rejected by a 57-43 margin in August; exit polls in recent years have shown that 59% of voters in midterm elections believe abortions should generally be legal; and according to polls, roughly that many voters want to codify the right to abortion into state law.

However, Ohio's Ballot Board decided to summarize the proposal using language that abortion rights activists find incomplete and describe the protection as related to an "unborn child" rather than a "fetus." These advocates objected, but Ohio's conservative-leaning Supreme Court upheld the changes proposed by the Republican Secretary of State, who is also running for the Democratic-held Senate seat next year, in which the text does not mention infertility treatments, contraception, pregnancy, or miscarriage care.

And it's in this detail that abortion rights activists might see the end of their winning streak that dates back to last summer when the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade. Last month, sociologists at Northern Ohio University tested two versions of the question on ballots. One used the "unborn child" phrasing, which appears on the ballots, and received 52% approval. But when expressed in the language of "embryo" (as it was originally worded when supporters collected nearly 300,000 more signatures than the 413,000 required to get it on the ballot), that number jumped to 68%. This 16-point difference is not coincidental.

In simple terms: how the question appears on the ballots could hinder efforts to maintain abortion legality in Ohio.

As previously noted in The DC Brief earlier this week, abortion rights have seen victories in politically isolated places like California and Kansas. Ohio, along with legislative races in Virginia, may offer abortion rights groups a chance to reset a narrative that has been tightening for over a year. Voters have consistently lined up in favor of abortion rights—a principle that has been enshrined in law for half a century before being struck down by the Supreme Court last year. Voters are clearly unhappy with this turn of events; just look at last year's "Red Wave" that never quite made it ashore. But, perhaps, just perhaps, there's a reboot in store before the 2024 presidential race.

However, this doesn't align with what lawmakers in conservative states are doing. Since the fall of Roe, around 21 states have banned or severely restricted access to abortion, among other efforts to limit or eliminate abortion rights. Ohio lawmakers passed a bill, which was signed by Governor Mike DeWine, banning abortions after about six weeks, although a judge has temporarily blocked it. The proposed constitutional amendment would seemingly leave the question up to Ohio voters, although, given the linguistic gymnastics, it's clearly not as straightforward as a simple "yes" or "no."

These days, in Ohio, there seems to be no place safe from difficult conversations about wombs. Benefactors and activists from other states are fueling costly efforts on both sides of Issue 1, funding roughly $34 million in TV ads and roadside signs. While the future of reproductive rights in Ohio literally hangs in the balance of the vote, another pressing question remains: Will Ohio remain a bellwether, a state that so many in Washington have looked to for so many years?