Oswald Clark and Paul Tuns

On Nov. 7, nearly four million citizens of Ohio voted to enshrine abortion in the state constitution, in a state that Donald Trump carried by a full eight percentage points in 2020. The vote was the seventh consecutive defeat for pro-lifers in statewide referenda since the Dobbs decision in June 2022 reversed the infamous 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that took away the right of states to regulate or restrict abortion in early pregnancy.

“The Right to Reproductive Freedom with Protections for Health and Safety,” listed as Issue 1 on the Ohio ballot, was supported by 2,186,962 voters (56.6 per cent) compared to 1,675,728 votes against (43.4 per cent). Pro-lifers were quick with excuses, and pundits were quick to paint abortion as an electoral albatross for Republicans.

On the same day, the pro-abortion Democratic governor of Kentucky, Andy Beshear, was re-elected and the pro-life gains promised by Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin in Virginia failed to materialize in the upper and lower houses of the state’s legislature. Typical of the coverage of these off-year elections, an ABC News headline stated “Abortion issues burn GOP.” It certainly seemed so. But did it really? What happened in Ohio and elsewhere and how should Republicans respond to the post-Dobbs world of abortion politics?

What is Issue 1?

Issue 1 was put on the ballot by a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment. It codifies “reproductive rights” in the state constitution, including abortion, contraception, and fertility treatment. Abortion would be guaranteed as a right up to the point of fetal viability, thus permitting restrictions after about 20 weeks. In 2019, the Ohio legislature passed a ban on all abortions regardless of gestational age but permitted exceptions for rape, incest, pregnant minors, and for the health of the mother. The ban went into effect after the Dobbs decision. Former president Donald Trump said the Ohio restrictions went “too far.”

Pro-abortion organizations, unions, medical organizations such as the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Democratic politicians lobbied heavily for Issue 1. Former president Barack Obama endorsed Issue 1. Pro-life groups, Catholic and evangelical leaders, and the state’s Republican establishment opposed Issue 1. Republican lawmakers tried to prevent Issue 1 from making it on the ballot and then tried changing the rules for constitutional amendments by referendum, but failed on both accounts.

The text of Issue 1 adds the following to the state constitution: “Every individual has a 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; and 5) abortion,” and “the State shall not, directly or indirectly, burden, penalize, prohibit, interfere with, or discriminate against either: 1) An individual’s voluntary exercise of this right or 2) A person or entity that assists an individual exercising this right,” unless the state of Ohio “demonstrates that it is using the least restrictive means to advance the individual’s health in accordance with widely accepted and evidence-based standards of care.”

Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom filed the proposed amendment on March 13 and collected more than 700,000 signatures in support of their proposal – about 300,000 signatures more than necessary. Republicans on the state election board attempted to use technicalities to disqualify the majority of signatures but Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose certified the petition on July 25. Republican lawmakers then attempted to change the rules for passing a constitutional amendment to require a supermajority of 60 per cent; that emergency measure was voted on by Ohio voters in a primary election on August 8, when 57 per cent voted against the attempt to change the rules. Three days later the Ohio Supreme Court ruled unanimously against a lawsuit challenging Issue 1.

Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom asked for the full constitutional amendment to be stated on the ballot, but the Republican-controlled Ohio Ballot Board substituted its own wording including replacing the term “fetus” with “unborn child” and omitting any mention of contraception and fertility treatments. Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom sued to have the board replace its wording with the full constitutional amendment, but the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favour of the board’s decision.

Pro-life groups complained about the outsized out-of-state money raised by the pro-abortion side and that the pro-abortion side vastly outspent the pro-life side, Protect Women Ohio. Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom did raise $39 million compared to $26 million raised by Protect Women Ohio but the gap in actual expenditures was much closer: $27 million to $24.3 million. The three largest donors were to Protect Women Ohio.

Who voted for Issue 1?

In 2020, only seven counties voted for Joe Biden in Ohio, all but one centered on the six largest cities in the state: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Akron. Last month, 18 counties that went Donald Trump’s way three years earlier voted for the constitutional amendment, a variety of suburban and rural counties throughout the state but especially in the northeast along the Pennsylvania border and Lake Ontario. Those 18 counties that voted for Trump in 2020 and to enshrine abortion in the state constitution last month swung an average of 13.4 percentage points, including eight counties that voted at least 60 per cent for Trump.

Exit polling – surveys conducted with voters immediately after they cast a ballot – provides a glimpse into why the pro-abortion side won. There are different organizations doing exit polling but their results generally align.

CNN polling indicated that women – who made up 53 per cent of the electorate – were more likely to vote for Issue 1 than men: 60 per cent for women, 53 per cent for men. Unmarried women were the strongest supporters of Issue 1 (69) followed by unmarried men (64), and married women (53). Just over half of married men (52) voted against Issue 1.  Women with children were slightly more likely to favour Issue 1 than women without children (62 compared to 58).

Younger voters (18-29) were three times more likely to vote for Issue 1 than against (77 per cent to 23 per cent), but they only made up 12 per cent of the electorate. Those 30-44 voted 68 per cent in favour of Issue 1, while those 45-64 voted 53 per cent in favour. Only those over 65 voted against enshrining abortion in the state constitution (55 per cent). More 45-64 year-olds voted than those over 65. Unmarried voters were twice as likely to support Issue 1 (67 per cent to 33) while married voters were essentially tied, 51-49.

There was a predictable partisan and ideological split. More than nine in ten self-identified Democrats supported Issue 1 (92 per cent) while eight in ten Republicans opposed it (82). Independents, who decide elections, supported Issue 1 64-36. While liberals overwhelmingly supported Issue 1 and conservative likewise opposed, self-identified moderates voted 69 per cent in favour. Among those who voted for Trump in 2020, 19 per cent voted for Issue 1 to enshrine abortion in the Ohio constitution. Only eight per cent of Biden voters opposed Issue 1.

Eight in ten black voters and seven in ten Hispanics supported Issue 1 but only 53 per cent of white voters. Black men were more likely to support abortion than black women.

College-educated whites strongly supported Issue 1 (60 per cent) while whites with no college degree were evenly split (52 per cent against). Voters from union households were significantly more likely to support Issue 1 (64 per cent among union households compared to 55 per cent for non-union households).

Urban voters backed Issue 1 70-30, while rural voters opposed it 60-40 and suburban voters were almost evenly divided (52-48 in favour).

Why is pro-life losing?

Mini Timmaraju, president of Reproductive Freedom for All, formerly NARAL Pro-Choice America, said, “Seven times abortion has been put on the ballot across the country, and seven times voters have turned out overwhelmingly to defend it.”

Timmaraiu is referring to Ohio and six previous occasions since Dobbs when voters voted for pro-abortion measures or against pro-life ones. In August 2022, 59 per cent of Kansans voted against a constitutional amendment to remove statutory protection for abortion. In November 2022, five other states voted pro-abortion; California voted 67 per cent in favour of a constitutional amendment on “reproductive freedom,” as did 77 per cent of people in Vermont, while 57 per cent did so in Michigan. In Kentucky, a constitutional amendment which would have removed legal protection of abortion was defeated 52 per cent to 48 per cent, and in Montana, 53 per cent of voters opposed requiring medical care for infants born

While the electoral success of pro-life politicians has been mixed since Dobbs, when given a direct say on promoting or restricting abortion, the pro-life side has lost, and usually decisively.

The reasons for this are not difficult to discern: issue and exit polling in 2022 and 2023 indicate that most voters are in one of two so-called middle camps of supporting abortion “rights” with some restrictions or restricting abortion with some carve-outs for when it is permissible, while the number of voters who support abortion without limit voters are double those pro-lifers who support a complete ban. Abortion politics, especially on constitutional amendments, likely favours the pro-abortion side right now.

That said, off-year elections such as Issue 1 in Ohio attract the most educated and partisan voters to the voting booth, which currently seem to align with pro-abortion views. Approximately one million fewer Ohioans voted on Issue 1 than in the 2020 presidential election. While Roe was the law of the land, pro-lifers were the more motivated voters but post-Dobbs, it seems that abortion supporters are the more motivated group.

Some pro-life pundits threw up their hands in disgust that a citizen-initiated referendum endorsed legal abortion. More party-minded pro-life Republicans began talking about the sorts of compromises the party would have to make in order to win elections – heartbeat or pain-capable bans, six-week or 15-week bans. Others, such as conservative Matthew Boose wrote at American Greatness, “Trump is the only Republican with the sense and the courage to say what many conservatives do not want to hear: their moral agenda is unpopular.”

Some pro-life leaders blamed the lopsided battle pro-lifers are forced to fight against a taxpayer-funded abortion industry and a media that is sympathetic to the cause of “abortion rights.” There is certainly some truth to that. As there is also truth to the argument that outside Ohio, most of the Republican establishment flinches from highlighting abortion as a point of difference between themselves and Democrats.

National Review’s Dan McLaughlin offered a more nuanced argument that the Ohio defeat was multifaceted: the referendum was confusing, the hostile press, being outspent by opponents, lack of political leadership, the fact most voters support exceptions to abortion bans in cases of rape and incest, the pro-abortion side being more motivated since Dobbs, the gap between the party’s position on abortion and that of their typical voter who is not as conservative, and status quo bias.

McLaughlin notes that status quo bias represents the essential conservative distrust of change and although overturning Roe handed the issue of abortion back to states for restriction and regulation through all nine months, people have yet to reconcile themselves with this essential truth. McLaughlin wrote that status quo bias is “precisely why it’s been such a high priority to the pro-abortion movement to get referenda on the ballot as swiftly as possible before people grow accustomed to a pro-life beachhead.”

Ohio is one of 16 states that permit citizen-initiated constitutional amendments to be put before the electorate, and pro-abortion forces are looking at other states where they might enact similar amendments as Ohio’s. Maryland and New York are already slated to have abortion “rights’ on their November 2024 ballots and abortion advocates are working to get enough signatures to get similar amendments on the ballot in Arizona, Florida, Missouri, and South Dakota. Meanwhile, pro-life groups are close to getting initiatives on the ballot in Iowa and Pennsylvania declaring there is no constitutional right to abortion in those states.

McLaughlin is correct to see the many reasons for the pro-life losses when the issue of abortion is voted on directly by the people. But he missed the most important; some pro-life leaders have argued that pro-life politicians and the movement in general need to do a better job selling their message to the public.

What’s next for pro-life?

   For nearly five decades, the pro-life movement in the United States focused on overturning Roe and that was a necessary strategy, but it mostly did so in the political arena at the expense of talking about why abortion is itself wrong. The pro-life movement won the legal argument but ceded the moral one to its opponents. Now the pro-life movement must play catch-up.

Susan B. Anthony Pro-life America president Marjorie Dannenfelser released a memo stating that Republicans must “define where it stands on the issue nationally,” “put real advertising dollars behind it,” and paint Democrats as extreme on abortion until birth.

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said that the pro-life movement won the political argument and must now focus on the “culture change that needs to happen” which could take “two decades … not necessarily just focused on the next election.”

Patrick T. Brown of the Ethics and Public Policy Centre, said “it’s not just a messaging problem, it’s also a substantive problem.” He said the trick is to find the “sweet spot” of “doing something that’s meaningful and advancing the pro-life cause while not engendering backlash.”

Lila Rose, founder and president of Live Action, said the political response to the defeat in Ohio and elsewhere “requires that our movement redouble our efforts, that we turn a new page on strategy.” Rose outlined what she saw was essential: “lead with truthful messaging” that eschews compromises and exceptions as they send a mixed message that some lives are worth protecting but not others. She said that consistency will be rewarded by voters as they will be attracted to the authenticity of political leaders who speak clearly about abortion. Rose said “people don’t recognize the evil that (abortion) is. They don’t recognize that it’s the murder of a child.”

Rose counseled against blaming the circumstances of the loss such as being outspent or dealing with a hostile media. “We need to have courage and vision to achieve victory here.”

Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr said in the aftermath of Issue 1 passing, “there remains a desperate need for conversion of hearts and minds to a culture of life in our country, one that respects the inherent dignity and sacredness of every human being from conception to natural death.” He said that is possible only “through earnest prayer and the witness of our compassionate care for the most vulnerable among us.”

Pro-life Senator J.D.Vance (R, Ohio) tweeted “for pro-lifers, last night was a gut punch. No sugar-coating it. Giving up on the unborn is not an option. It’s politically dumb and morally repugnant. Instead, we need to understand why we lost this battle so we can win the war.”