People celebrate the defeat of Issue 1, a Republican-backed measure that would have made it harder to amend the state constitution, an initiative aimed at helping defeat a November referendum that would protect abortion access in the state (OSV News photo/Adam Cairns, USA Today Network via Reuters).

There’s a new Issue 1 on the ballot in Ohio in November, but the question this time isn’t whether to make it harder to amend the state constitution (that was Issue 1 on the ballot in August) but whether to enshrine a right to abortion until fetal viability—or, in the proposed amendment’s language, “the point in a pregnancy when, in the professional judgment of the pregnant patient’s treating physician, the fetus has a significant likelihood of survival outside the uterus with reasonable measures.” In 2022, voters in California, Michigan, and Vermont passed similar amendments; more strikingly, voters in Kansas and Kentucky rejected attempts to restrict abortion rights.

Ohio’s Governor Mike DeWine claims that the amendment goes too far for many Ohioans: “We are not New York. We are not California,” he said in April. But he also claims that the state’s current law—suspended for now by a county court ruling—goes too far in the opposite direction. It prohibits abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detectable in the fifth or sixth week of gestation, with exceptions in cases of medical emergency, but not in cases of rape or incest. DeWine worried that the strictness of the law, passed by a legislature significantly to the right of the public, might push voters to support the constitutional amendment. And polling suggests he may be right: according to a July poll from Suffolk University, nearly 58 percent of registered voters back the amendment, which is enough for it to pass. (The old Issue 1, which failed badly, aimed to raise the threshold to 60 percent.)

As I noted in my August article on the earlier ballot initiative, I plan to vote No in the November referendum. Although there are reasonable arguments about when “hominization” occurs—when the embryo or fetus becomes a human being—I don’t see a case for setting the limit beyond week twelve, by which time, as the Cleveland Clinic puts it, “most critical development has taken place.” What’s more, as a Catholic, I believe strongly in the goodness of all developing human life, whether it’s fully formed or not. That said, I can see why people who don’t think as I do would be exercised by the “heartbeat bill,” which Governor DeWine signed into law despite his recently stated misgivings. No exceptions for incest or rape after week five or six of pregnancy, which is before some women even know they’re pregnant, is extreme in current political circumstances.

Of course, the Catholic Conference of Ohio, the state’s bishops’ conference, opposes the proposed amendment and is doing what it can to inform, persuade, and mobilize voters. But the amendment’s strong support, even in relatively red Ohio, has got me thinking both about how Catholic opposition to abortion has apparently gone wrong, and about what needs to be done next.


For several decades, the pro-life movement, including the U.S. bishops, sought to overturn Roe v. Wade not directly, by way of an amendment to the U.S. constitution, but indirectly, by supporting presidents who over time would remake the Supreme Court. The strategy worked after President Donald Trump, with the help of Sen. Mitch McConnell among others, appointed three Justices: the votes were finally there not only to chip away at Roe, but to overturn it. After Dobbs, abortion law has gone back to the states, and it turns out that the pro-life movement, having won the battle for control of the Supreme Court, is ill-prepared to win the culture war over abortion. Indeed, at present it seems to be losing. Why?

After Dobbs, abortion law has gone back to the states, and it turns out that the pro-life movement, having won the battle for control of the Supreme Court, is ill-prepared to win the culture war over abortion.

Cultural decadence is one possible answer, and that’s perhaps the subtext of Governor DeWine’s statement that Ohio is neither New York nor California. But that explanation doesn’t do justice to the intensity of conviction of many people who are pro-choice. Neither does the suggestion that protecting access to abortion is really about ensuring that women get to be just as promiscuous as men, who can avoid the life-altering effects of pregnancy when contraception fails or isn’t used. That suggestion appears in Carter Snead’s book What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics, but happily it’s only an extension of the book’s thesis, not the thesis itself. More fundamentally, Snead sees support for abortion rights as following from the creed of expressive individualism: you live your wild and precious life as your heart dictates, not beholden to the needs of a being like a fetus, which lacks “the behaviors that expressive individualism recognizes as proper to persons,” such as self-awareness, higher cognition, and the formation of desires.

Snead may be right about the pervasiveness of expressive individualism in our culture, and this may indeed go some way toward explaining attitudes about early abortions. (A record 69 percent of Americans now support legalizing abortion in the first three months of pregnancy.) But I wonder if a lot of the support for abortion rights reflects, instead, the relative absence of what he eloquently prescribes as the antidote to expressive individualism: “robust and expansive networks of uncalculated giving and grateful receiving.” As Snead writes, “the vulnerability and dependence of a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy constitutes a summons for aid.” But is that aid widely available and forthcoming in our society? To be sure, there are pro-life (or “whole life”) people and organizations admirably answering the call by putting into practice the virtues that Snead commends: “just generosity, hospitality, and accompaniment in suffering (misericordia).” But it seems they’re pushing back not so much against “expressive individualism” as against what Pope Francis calls “throwaway culture,” which has no sympathy for the people it sees as useless—the unborn, but also the elderly, migrants, refugees, people addicted to drugs, people experiencing homelessness, and the poor more generally. Cathleen Kaveny wrote some years ago, “For a twenty-year old woman bearing her fourth baby in a ghetto…what can a commendation of self-sacrifice and serendipity possibly mean? She knows full well that society has already abandoned her as worthless.”

If the real enemy is throwaway culture, it follows that the real problem for the pro-life movement is that it has been co-opted by Republican anti-abortion politics, which cares not a whit about the difficulties of women facing unplanned pregnancies. Consider the fact that, post-Dobbs, former President Trump is no longer so adamantly pro-life. Whatever motivated his pre-Dobbs position, it wasn’t compassion for the vulnerable and weak. Consider, too, Republican opposition to the pandemic-era expanded child tax credit, which cut child poverty nearly in half until it was allowed to expire at the end of 2021. In Ohio, Democratic state representatives have proposed a similar bill, but it doesn’t seem to stand a chance of making it through the Republican supermajorities in the state house and senate. Meanwhile, Governor DeWine has proposed a state child tax deduction; but because it is a deduction rather than a credit, it wouldn’t benefit the poor who, not making much money, also don’t pay much in taxes. The message is all too clear: if you’re pregnant, you need to have that baby. But after that, you’re on your own.

The message is all too clear: if you’re pregnant, you need to have that baby. But after that, you’re on your own.

That obviously can’t be the pro-life movement’s message if it wants to appeal to a wider base of voters. The Ohio Catholic Conference seems to understand the problem well. While opposing the new Issue 1, it is highlighting the many ways it supports pregnant women and advocates for “a culture of life in Ohio public policy”—for example, by lobbying for an expanded child tax credit. Yet it seems to me that the Church here has recently made a significant misstep: the Cleveland archdiocese’s highly publicized “parish and school policy on issues of sexuality and gender identity,” issued in August, could not have come at a worse time. As Nick Fagnant recently explained, the policy bans students from using their preferred pronouns, going to the bathroom of their choice, dancing with a date “of the same God-given biological sex,” dressing “in a manner inconsistent with [one’s] God-given biological sex,” displaying LGBTQ pride in any way, and transitioning from one sex to another. In brief: no, no, no, no, no.

LGBTQ issues and abortion might seem to have little to do with one another. But for its pro-life message to be heard by people deaf to it now, the Church needs ample evidence that it places love of neighbor first; and the archdiocese’s current gender policy screams intolerance and judgment and hardness of heart toward people who already have enough troubles. That’s not a good look for the pro-life movement’s strongest, most visible institutional supporter. Perhaps a lesson is that life issues—among which I’d include trans issues—really do form a “seamless garment,” and that even pulling at an apparently peripheral piece risks damaging the whole.

Bernard G. Prusak holds the Raymond and Eleanor Smiley Chair in Business Ethics at John Carroll University.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.