My family and I moved to Ohio toward the beginning of the summer. We weren’t in our new house even a week before friendly neighbors began talking to us about politics. (No religion or money yet!) Our suburban Cleveland street is lined with plastic lawn signs urging residents to “Vote No on Issue 1” and to “Sign Our Petition.” We soon learned that there would be a special election on Issue 1 on August 8. That election will decide whether to amend the amendment process itself in the Ohio state constitution. The petition the lawn signs urged us to sign is the work of a coalition called #ProtectChoiceOhio and also has to do with a proposed amendment to the state constitution. In the end, it gathered nearly twice the number of required signatures, and it was announced on July 25 that “The Right to Reproductive Freedom with Protections for Health and Safety” will be included on the November ballot. Among other provisions, it protects the right to abortion until “fetal viability,” defined as when “the fetus has a significant likelihood of survival outside the uterus with reasonable measures.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the proposal to amend the amendment process is linked to the amendment to protect the right to abortion. Since 1912, the Ohio constitution has allowed citizens to bypass lawmakers and refer laws and constitutional amendments directly to voters. In these referenda, a majority vote suffices to pass both laws and constitutional amendments. The amendment to change the amendment process, which originated with lawmakers, would raise the threshold for amendments to 60 percent, and require that a percentage of signatures in support of so-called citizen-initiated amendments be gathered from every county in the state. If the proposal to amend the amendment process passes, passage of the amendment to protect the right to abortion would become less likely. A 2022 Suffolk University/Cincinnati Enquirer poll found that 53 percent of Ohioans likely to vote in the midterm elections wanted to protect abortion rights. A 2022 Baldwin University poll found that 59.1 percent of respondents would support a constitutional amendment to make abortion a fundamental right in the state. And a Suffolk University/USA Today poll conducted between July 9 and 12 estimates that 58 percent of registered voters back the amendment that will be on the November ballot. Ohio’s Secretary of State, Frank LaRose, who is running for the Republican nomination to challenge U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown in 2024, recently acknowledged that the Issue 1 amendment “is 100 percent about keeping a radical pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution.” Ohio Right to Life and Focus on the Family have cast the referendum in similar terms.
Abortion is currently legal in Ohio up to nearly twenty-two weeks of pregnancy, but that’s only because a 2019 bill passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law by Republican governor Mike DeWine was blocked in 2022 by a state judge on the grounds that it violates the Ohio constitution. The 2019 law makes it a felony to perform an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detectable in the fifth or sixth week of gestation. The law admits an exception in cases of medical emergency, but not in cases of rape or incest. In January, the state attorney general appealed the judge’s injunction to the Ohio Supreme Court, which has agreed to review it.
The thought has occurred to me: life seemed simpler in Pennsylvania, where we last lived, though that state has also had its tussles, recently about alleged Covid overreach. In any case, politics in Ohio are much more interesting than I had expected. What’s a voter like me to do?
To be clear about where I’m coming from: I oppose protecting a right to abortion until fetal viability. In my judgment, a fetus has morally significant interests well before that stage. (I explained why in this 2013 article.) So, I will vote No in the November referendum. The August special election is trickier. Though its timing does seem to be all about abortion, it’s telling that supporters of Issue 1 include the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Hotel and Lodging Association, the Ohio Restaurant Association, and the Buckeye Firearms Association—groups more concerned with the prospect of citizen initiatives raising the minimum wage or regulating guns than with abortion. Both sides decry the influence of special interests, especially from out of state. Supporters of Issue 1 argue that a constitution should be hard to amend, just as the federal constitution has proven to be. Opponents argue that raising the threshold to 60 percent would enshrine minority rule.