By: Jack Butler – nationalreview.com –
One record looms large for Ohio pro-life activists: oh-and-six. That figure represents the fate of their cause in voter-decided state ballot initiatives since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June 2022. It includes both failed pro-life initiatives and, as in neighboring Michigan, successful pro-abortion ones.
As Ohio prepares to vote this November on Issue 1, a pro-abortion constitutional-amendment initiative, that oh-for-six record underscores the challenge pro-lifers face. They are up against a well-resourced pro-amendment campaign. But they believe Ohio can defy the national trend if they make clear the radical implications of a yes vote.
To succeed, they will have to unite. Given the pro-life movement’s past divisions in the state, that was not guaranteed. In recent years, many local Right to Life chapters have separated from Ohio Right to Life to form the Right to Life Action Coalition of Ohio (RTLACO). They cited both tactical and substantive misgivings about the first group’s commitment to limiting abortion. But the coming vote has diminished factionalism. “As horrible and all as this thing is, it has given us the opportunity to really focus on what is important. All of these other things are sort of peripheral now,” Molly Smith, president of Cleveland Right to Life, says. “Everybody is focused into one goal. And that is to stop this amendment.” That doesn’t mean friction has disappeared entirely, as Peter Range, CEO of Ohio Right to Life, explains. “At this time, there’s still differences among us. We’re human beings. You’re going to have that in any family,” he says. “But we’re all in the same boat, and we’re all rowing in the same direction for November.”
Pro-lifers have united under the banner of Protect Women Ohio (PWO). That includes not just explicitly pro-life organizations, such as Right to Life chapters, Democrats for Life, and Feminists for Life, but also religious groups such as the Center for Christian Virtue, the Ohio Christian Alliance, and Created Equal, as well as the Catholic Church and various Protestant churches. “We’ve never seen such a level of engagement of all types of community groups and faith groups,” Laura Strietmann, president of Cincinnati Right to Life, says. Their effort, which encompasses everything from door-knocking to sign distribution to well-placed TV ads (one aired during a highly rated Notre Dame–OSU football game), has come to resemble a high-profile political candidacy. It has encouraged cooperation across the state and allowed the campaign to get off the ground early — correcting two defects of Michigan pro-lifers’ effort. Support from national-level pro-life organizations has also made a difference. Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America has led the way — “all-in from Day One,” according to Ed Sitter, executive director of Greater Toledo Right to Life.
There are still many challenges. One is the defeat of a ballot initiative this past August that, if passed, would have raised the threshold to amend Ohio’s constitution from 50 percent plus one to 60 percent and applied to the pro-abortion measure in November. The votes on the two initiatives are “definitely linked, and it’s definitely made our November vote more difficult,” Margie Christie, executive director of Dayton Right to Life, says. Even so, pro-lifers believe they can persuade those who previously voted no. “How people voted in August is not the determination of how people are going to vote in November,” Strietmann says.
Lame-duck governor Mike DeWine has been a pleasant surprise. Pro-life leaders had tussled with him in the past: Last year, RTLACO declined to endorse him for reelection, citing unsatisfactory appointments to the state’s department of health and his renewal of abortion-provider licenses. But he has given his “full blessing” to this effort, Smith says. Strietmann admits that not all elected officials “have the same enthusiasm for the life issue” even if they are pro-life; priorities can differ, and pro-lifers are perennial scapegoats for political defeat. But Ohio pro-life leaders don’t buy the idea that their goal is a political albatross and note, among other things, the dispiriting of the grassroots that might ensue if Republican politicians threw them under the bus. “The narrative that’s out there now is that the pro-life cause is a loser for the Republican Party,” Sitter says. “I think that narrative’s a lie from the pit of hell.” The pro-abortion forces that support amending Ohio’s constitution include Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity. They will bring to bear far more money and resources than pro-lifers can. They will have the media, which tend to side against the pro-life cause. And “40 years of Roe v. Wade has taken a toll on this country’s mentality,” Christie says. Pro-lifers haven’t done enough “changing hearts and minds” to overcome the casual acceptance of abortion.
A further difficulty is that “the opposition feels no compunction whatsoever about lying,” Smith says. Some of the lies include attempts to convince voters that contraception and miscarriage care will disappear without the amendment’s passage. Kate Makra, executive director of Cleveland Right to Life, says that abortion supporters “want people to think that, ‘Oh, gosh, if I vote no on this, then women who are suffering miscarriages are not going to get medical care.’” A different kind of deception showed up in one of the pro-amendment side’s ads. It uses an image of a man kneeling inside a (Catholic-looking) church as a narrator cites “our faith” as a guide to making “personal medical decisions,” leaving the false impression that voting yes is consistent with Catholicism.
Deception is baked into the very language of the November initiative, which Makra describes as “purposely vague.” It stipulates that “the State shall not, directly or indirectly, burden, penalize, prohibit, interfere with, or discriminate against” either “an individual’s voluntary exercise” of the “right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions, including but not limited to decisions on (1) contraception; (2) fertility treatment; (3) continuing one’s own pregnancy; (4) miscarriage care; (5) and abortion” or “a person or entity that assists an individual exercising” that right. As a constitutional right, abortion access would trump statutes. The goal seems to be to set the stage for evisceration of any state laws that could be construed as impeding access to abortion.
The first targets would be Ohio’s heartbeat bill, currently held up in the courts, and the state’s required 24-hour waiting period. Also imperiled would be various health and safety regulations. Rachel Citak, president of Cincinnati Right to Life, explains that “anything in our statutory scheme that seeks to protect women from [abortion] can be regarded as something that discriminates, that penalizes, burdens, or prohibits those organizations” — for example, a requirement that abortion facilities be within a certain distance of a hospital that provides emergency services. Makra says, “It’s not hyperbolic to say that the salon at which a woman gets her nails done would be more regulated.”
The clause about “a person or entity” that assists in an abortion could even give impunity to someone pressuring another to have an abortion, such as a rapist. A 2004 incident in Cincinnati in which a 21-year-old soccer coach did exactly that to a 14-year-old girl, with Planned Parenthood failing to notify the girl’s parents or the authorities, stands out as a chilling example: What Planned Parenthood did at its own discretion could become a legally established norm. “A person or entity that assists in exercising” a right to abortion “is going to basically receive legal protection,” Makra says. “Because they’re the one helping, quote unquote, this individual with this procedure. And so they’re looked at by the other side as a champion, whether they are a 40-year-old guy with a 15-year-old girl, or whatever the situation may be. That person or entity will receive protection.”
Pro-lifers also have concerns about the amendment’s declaration that “every individual has a right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions, including but not limited to decisions on contraception, fertility treatment, continuing one’s own pregnancy, miscarriage care, and abortion.” Ohio pro-lifers believe the amendment uses “individual” intentionally. “That’s a legal term,” Range says. “It means anyone of any age.” If this interpretation carries, then Ohio’s parental-notification and -consent laws are sure to go, leading minors to seek abortions before their parents even know they’re pregnant. “And even if they do know about it, they would not have a right to say, ‘No, I don’t want this for my child,’” Makra says.
The amendment’s provision that the state may prohibit abortion “after fetal viability” is little consolation to the pro-life side. For one thing, the determination of viability is left to the abortionist. The amendment also states that an abortion may not be prohibited if it is determined “necessary to protect the pregnant patient’s life or health.” “Health” has long been used in court cases not only in its literal sense but preceded by any number of adjectives that turn it into a figure of speech — financial, social, economic, familial, or psychological health, in Citak’s examples — whose effect is to allow abortion through all nine months of pregnancy.
Further distressing outcomes that may become possible if the amendment passes and courts interpret its vague language broadly, as in other states, include the creation of “buffer zones” around abortion clinics that would prevent prayer groups from congregating near them, as well as an end to the state’s protections for medical workers with religious objections to performing an abortion. “If this amendment makes abortion a constitutional right, then a doctor who is qualified to perform [an abortion] can be required by his employer to do so, overturning current law that protects the conscience rights of health professionals,” Citak says. And if doctors don’t, “then they will be open to the liability for any harms” that a woman alleges “come to her from not performing the abortion.” Ohio taxpayers could also be implicated. After abortion was established as a “fundamental right” in Alaska, a court ruled that taxpayer dollars (through Medicaid) could be used to pay for elective abortions. Indeed, in neighboring Michigan, less than a year after its pro-abortion initiative passed, the legislature is seeking to gut many of the state’s remaining restrictions on abortion and to allow Medicaid to cover abortions.
All of this would create an abortion regime in Ohio that went well beyond Roe v. Wade. And beyond abortion, pro-lifers even worry that the amendment’s language might be sufficiently broad to apply to so-called gender-affirming care, meaning that such treatments would also no longer require parental notification or consent.
The amendment’s pro-life opponents know that its defeat is hardly assured. But they still believe they can succeed in Ohio where pro-life efforts in other states have failed. If they do not prevail in November, they will have at least learned from the experience about what works and what does not. And they will not give up. “The pro-life movement will never die,” Range says. “Because life is worth fighting for.”
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