The fight for abortion rights is the fight for our democracy and this week, Ohioans stood firmly against rampant attacks from Republicans who have worked in overdrive to silence our power at the ballot box. Try as they may to keep us quiet, Ohioans showed up to fight back. And despite how absolutely monumental Tuesday’s victory was, I want to be clear that the fight for abortion rights didn’t start with this campaign cycle and it certainly won’t end there.
For nearly the last 15 years, Republicans have leveraged the weight of the entire state government to relentlessly attack abortion access and reproductive health care — including not just the doctors who provide it, but also the patients seeking it and the organizations working to support them in being able to find it.
In the first three years of former Republican Gov. John Kasich’s gubernatorial administration, half of Ohio’s abortion clinics shuttered after a gerrymandered, Republican Legislature passed a slew of targeted restrictions on abortion providers, or TRAP laws. And each of the biennial state budgets passed under Republican governors since 2011 — that is for both the Kasich and, now, current DeWine administrations — cut public funding to organizations like Planned Parenthood, which offer comprehensive reproductive health care, in order to funnel millions of dollars to unregulated so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” that openly discourage abortion and often mislead patients about what care is available to them.
The Dobbs decision paved the way for gerrymandered Republican legislatures to ban abortion statewide.
Even before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, Ohio was already dealing with a reality where abortion access had been severely restricted. But of course, the Court’s ruling in Dobbs — which overturned a constitutional right for the first time in U.S. history and turned the bodily autonomy keys over to gerrymandered state legislators to deal with instead — opened the floodgates to Ohio Republicans’ pipe dream of outlawing abortion once and for all.
Mere minutes after the Dobbs decision came down, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R) filed a lawsuit to immediately implement the state’s six-week abortion ban that had been passed in 2019, but hadn’t yet gone into effect because of a Roe v. Wade-anchored injunction from a federal district court judge. Without the undue burden protections from Roe, Yost argued, the ban should go into effect immediately. And he won.
In the mere 82 days the six-week ban was implemented — before it was again blocked by a separate injunction — drastic and undeniable harm was done to Ohio’s medical providers and, especially, to patients seeking abortion and reproductive health care. That includes the harrowing story of Beth and Kyle, a couple featured in an ad from the Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights campaign — the group behind Tuesday’s abortion amendment — who were forced to leave the state to receive necessary abortion care to end a non-viable pregnancy that threatened Beth’s life.
Given the stakes and lasting impacts of losing abortion access, no one wanted to wage a state-by-state fight to protect it, but that’s the landscape we got thanks to the Dobbs decision. And without any action in Congress to enshrine abortion rights across the country in one fell swoop, it was clear that to move the needle forward, we’d have to launch a people-led campaign to protect our rights. But that wouldn’t come without a severe battle.
Here in Ohio, much like their quest to maintain their grips on political power, there’s almost nothing Republicans won’t do to outlaw abortion. And, in line with how they operate when it comes to getting their way on new district lines or voting laws, they used abortion rights as an obvious proxy in their overarching war on our democracy.
Anticipating an abortion rights amendment on the ballot, Ohio Republicans tried to obstruct the democratic process.
Their first attempt at derailing Ohio’s people-led effort to enshrine abortion rights into our state constitution was to stand up an illegal special election in August of this year — the first such statewide election in a century — to gut our rights to direct democracy rather than to engage in a fair fight on the issue up front. That ballot amendment, which would have raised the threshold for voters to pass constitutional amendments from 50% to 60% — was voted down decisively by 14 points. It was revealed just last week that this unprecedented special election cost Ohio tax payers a staggering $18 million.
Unsuccessful in that attempt, Republicans then utilized their control of the Ohio Ballot Board to manipulate the ballot language to include biased and misleading wording to describe what the proposed amendment would do instead of simply using the full 208-word amendment language itself.
Rather than trusting voters with the real language, the same people who had just railed for the first half of 2023 about the sanctity of our state constitution instead forced us to use inaccurate, politically-driven language that left off 80% of the medical procedures and reproductive health care the amendment explicitly protects.
As if Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s feat of manipulating the final language voters saw before they cast their ballots wasn’t enough, Attorney General Yost then issued an informal legal opinion about the issue — something he has never done for any other election — in an attempt to bolster the misinformation campaign coming from the abortion opponents’ camp.
Adding to their state-sponsored anti-abortion repertoire, the Republican-led Ohio Senate then passed a resolution allowing state legislators to formally campaign on the issue in their official capacity and on the taxpayers’ dime. They then set up a state-sponsored website to help boost anti-abortion propaganda and misinformation about the potential impacts of the amendment. And then, to really seal the deal, the governor appeared in an ad with his wife, Fran, to outright lie to and gaslight Ohioans about the issue.
On top of all of that, after Ohio’s early vote period had already begun — and, thus, after the deadline to register to vote in this election — LaRose quietly purged nearly 27,000 people from our state’s voter rolls. To my memory, there hasn’t been any other time when an Ohio Secretary of State administered a voter purge while an election was already underway.
Usually those purges happen outside of the regular election cycle to ensure people have a chance to re-register if they were wrongly purged or want to engage in an upcoming election. But who needs a regular course of business when we could instead employ every anti-democratic trick in the book to block abortion rights?
What’s been made even more clear with this election is that Ohio Republicans will do whatever it takes to avoid a fair fight. They will lie, they will cheat and — when they’re not winning or when the polling isn’t in their favor — they will change the rules of the game to suit their favor. They did all that and more during this election cycle.
But despite all of that effort to kneecap the power of our votes at the ballot box — and to keep us from getting to the ballot in the first place — we still won.
After the GOP’s failed attempts to block the amendment’s passage, voters had the final say on Tuesday.
Last night’s decisive victory was made possible by an incredible coalition anchored by Black- and brown-led reproductive justice, rights and health organizations — the same leaders who have been on the front lines defending access to abortion and reproductive health care for decades.
But it wasn’t just the more traditional partners you’d expect to be in play on this issue who backed the Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights campaign’s efforts; the coalition also brought together organizations who don’t normally work explicitly in or mobilize around the reproductive rights space but who understand the intersectional impact this ballot measure will have on all Ohioans.
Together, nearly 30 coalition partner organizations ran an impressive field program in just three months, including knocking on more than a million doors, making more than two million calls and sending more than six million texts to mobilize voters to get out and vote.
Ohio voters cut through the extremist noise broadcast to voters by our Republican governor, attorney general, secretary of state and legislators to codify abortion rights into our state constitution. And not by a small margin — by 13 points. But if you think that that type of clear message from their voters would mean Ohio Republicans would listen, I’ve got a bridge in New Jersey to sell you.
Disregarding the will of the voters, Ohio legislative leaders have already vowed to keep trying to ban abortion in future elections.
Ohio Senate President and Republican gerrymandering extraordinaire Matt Huffman has already promised a “revolving door of ballot campaigns to repeal or replace Issue 1.” And his counterpart in the Ohio House, Speaker Jason Stephens, has similarly signaled that the illegally gerrymandered Republican-dominated Legislature will move quickly to attempt to undo what voters very clearly want.
Suffice it to say, Ohio Republicans have made clear that they actually don’t care what any of us have to say, how we vote or how we think our state should be run. But no matter what nonsense they throw our way, I hope they understand that we aren’t going anywhere. We will be here — today, tomorrow and every other day in the aftermath of this election to keep building the political future we want, one where we build a government that works for and serves all of us.
And while I’m still floating on these two back-to-back existential victories in my beloved home state, let me say firmly what so many of us who work in the trenches here have known all along: Ohio is a state worth fighting for, our grassroots leaders are worth investing in and we can win hard fights here.
The people-led fight for our democracy is being waged right here in the heart of it all — and we are winning. Come see about my Ohio.
Katy Shanahan is an attorney and activist in her home state of Ohio where she continues to fight for fair maps and expansive voting laws in the Buckeye State. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Shanahan writes about the state of voting rights in Ohio as well as redistricting both in Ohio and across the country.