Pro-life groups have been on the losing side of every abortion-related ballot measure since the Dobbs decision, a slide they hope to reverse with Ohio Issue 1.
It won’t be easy. The proposed abortion-rights amendment is the must-watch race of Tuesday’s off-year election, blowing past $70 million in combined spending and drawing support from Democratic VIPs including former President Barack Obama and megadonor George Soros.
The measure would establish in the state constitution “an individual right to one’s own reproductive medical treatment, including but not limited to abortion,” preempting Ohio’s current 22-week gestational limit as well as a heartbeat law pending in the courts.
The ballot measure’s significance extends beyond Ohio. Win or lose, it offers a real-time gauge of the abortion issue’s potency ahead of the 2024 election and a test of whether the pro-life movement has turned the tide after a string of state ballot losses in 2022.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said “the stakes are the absolutely highest possible” in Ohio, but that “we are all in.”
“If we lose that initiative, it means there will be no ability for citizens of Ohio to speak to their own views and have them be reflected in the law,” she said on a recent press call. “There can be no consensus formed in the political process if we lose in Ohio. And it’s a tough battle. It’s definitely not a slam dunk. We’re fighting as hard as we can.”
Her organization has sunk $20 million into defeating Issue 1. Other major donors to the “no on 1” campaign include the Concord Fund and the Knights of Columbus, but pro-life fundraising has been outstripped by a flood of contributions from major Democratic funders.
The three “yes on 1” campaigns have raised $41.7 million, while the three “no” committees have collected $29.8 million, making Issue 1 the most expensive abortion-related ballot measure since the Dobbs decision, according to Ballotpedia.
Major contributors to passing Issue 1 include the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the Sixteen Thirty Fund, Oklahoma billionaire Lynn Schusterman, and Mr. Soros’ Open Society Policy Center, which has donated $3.5 million.
Polls show the abortion-rights measure has the edge. A Baldwin Wallace University survey of registered voters released Oct. 17 found Issue 1 ahead by 58% to 33%, with 8% undecided. An Ohio Northern University poll of registered voters taken Oct. 16-19 showed Issue 1 leading 60% to 40%.
“There’s no part of the country where abortion bans are popular, period. Every time we’ve gone directly to the people around an abortion ban or a ballot initiative, we’ve won,” Mini Timmaraju, CEO of Reproductive Freedom for All, said on MSNBC.
Voters in six states — California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and Vermont — decided abortion-related ballot measures last year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, sending decision-making to the states.
The proposals ranged from California’s sweeping abortion rights amendment to Montana’s referred statute requiring medical care for infants born alive after a botched abortion. In all six races, the pro-choice side was victorious.
Those votes came as a wake-up call for the pro-life movement, which has responded by building coalitions and fine-tuning its messaging by, for example, pressing the pro-choice side on whether it supports any restrictions on abortion.
Pro-life groups have linked the proposal to parental rights, arguing that Issue 1 is so broadly worded that it would allow minors to undergo abortions and gender transitions without their parents’ consent. Supporters counter that the measure says nothing about parental rights.
Foes of Issue 1 also argue that the measure would create an abortion free-for-all in Ohio along the lines of those in California and Vermont.
“This is more than just a pro-life or pro-choice statement,” said Megan Wold, former Ohio deputy solicitor general. “It is an up-or-down vote, but it’s an up-or-down vote on very particular language that is going to have a real impact on the way Ohio can regulate abortion in the future. In fact, Ohio probably won’t be able to regulate abortion at all because the right articulated in Issue 1 is so permissive.”
The abortion issue was credited with stemming the anticipated Republican wave in the November 2022 election, a phenomenon that Democrats are hoping to see repeated in 2024.
Another test of the issue’s strength comes with Tuesday’s legislative races in Virginia, where Democratic candidates are running hard on abortion access. In Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has leveraged the issue in his reelection battle against Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron.
Whether the issue resonates with voters like it did in 2022 is another question. A Morning Consult poll in March found that 10% of voters in key congressional districts ranked it as their top concern, down from 15% in November.
Ohio voters defeated in August a proposal to raise the bar on passing constitutional amendments from 50% to 60% of the vote—a measure also called Issue 1—in what was viewed as a proxy for the abortion battle.
This time, however, the pro-life side has advantages that it didn’t previously enjoy, according to an analysis by Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“First of all, the anti-abortion rights side has the ‘no’ side on the ballot, whereas in August they were the ‘yes’ side,” said the Nov. 1 election analysis. “There sometimes can be a so-called status quo bias that helps the no side in a ballot issue, although that may be less of a factor in this race because while ballot issues in general can be obscure and hard to understand — prompting voters to just vote no and move along — abortion is not an obscure issue.”
In addition, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, has campaigned against Issue 1, saying in an ad with his wife Fran DeWine that the measure goes too far and is “just not right for Ohio.”
Then there’s the ballot language. The Ohio Ballot Board approved a summary that uses “unborn child” instead of “fetus,” which prompted a challenge from pro-choice groups. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the board’s language.
Benefiting the pro-choice side is that Issue 1 shares a ballot with Issue 2, a marijuana-legalization initiative, which is expected to drive turnout among left-leaning voters. So far voter turnout has been robust, with election officials predicting 40% or 50% turnout in the off-year election.
In Issue 1’s corner are heavyweights like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the Human Rights Campaign, and prominent Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Mr. Obama, who recently posted his support on X.
“Ohio, there’s an important election happening right now,” Mr. Obama said. “If you want to protect abortion rights by making them part of your state Constitution, vote yes on Issue 1.”