Abortion messaging roils debate over Ohio ballot initiative. Backers said it wasn’t about that

Jul 24, 2023, 8:51 AM

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The fraught politics of abortion have helped turn an August ballot question in Ohio that would make it harder to change the state constitution into a cauldron of misinformation and fear-mongering.

State Issue 1, the sole question on the ballot, calls for raising the threshold for passing future changes to the Ohio Constitution from a simple majority to 60%. Starting next year, it also would double the number of counties where signatures must be gathered, from 44 to all 88, and do away with the 10-day grace period for closing gaps in the total valid signatures submitted.

Republican state lawmakers and the GOP elections chief who urgently advanced the measure said it had nothing to do with thwarting an abortion rights questionworking toward the ballot this fall. However, early summer messaging on social media and in churches has consistently urged a yes vote on the August amendment “to protect life” — and that’s just one example of the loaded messages confronting voters during the campaign.

Protect Women Ohio, the campaign against the fall abortion issue, is airing pro-Issue 1 ads suggesting that abortions rights proponents at work in the state “encourage minors to get sex change surgeries and want to trash parental consent.” The fall abortion amendment would protect access to various forms of reproductive health care but makes no mention of gender surgery, and the attorneys who wrote it say Ohio’s parental consent law would not be affected.

Groups opposing Issue 1 also have played on voters’ fears with their messaging against the 60% threshold. One spot by the Democratic political group Progress Action Fund shows a couple steamily groping in their bedroom, then interrupted by a white-haired Republican congressman who has come to take their birth control. It closes with a caption: “Keep Republicans Out of Your Bedroom. Vote No On Aug, 8.”

While the ad is based in fears that the U.S. Supreme Court could limit rights to at-home contraception and Issue 1 would make it harder to enshrine those in Ohio’s state constitution, “the direct, immediate issue is abortion,” said Susan Burgess, a political science professor at Ohio University.

The divergent abortion communications around Issue 1 reflects a big problem Republicans in Ohio must confront: holding an increasingly diverse voting bloc together, Burgess said.

“That is a complicated coalition that includes evangelicals; it includes people on the far right, it includes libertarians and includes, you know, old-time Reagan Republicans,” she said. “They need to be able to talk about abortion to hold a certain part of their coalition together, but it’s not a political winner at this time for them to stick to a hard-line abortion argument.”

Issue 1 supporters’ conversations in more targeted settings reflect that duality.

Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who supports the measure, has previously called Issue 1 a “win for good government” that protects Ohioans from out-of-state special interests.

But he had a different tone at a Seneca County dinner for Lincoln Day in May, when he said that the August measure “is 100% about keeping a radical, pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution.” In an Associated Press interview, LaRose said that comment — now featured in ads around the state — was clipped from a lengthy speech and taken out of context.

Aaron Baer, president of the Center for Christian Virtue, said on a radio show this month that his organization is only connecting Issue 1 to abortion with certain segments of Ohio voters.

“When we go up on TV, is the ad going to be on abortion? Probably not,” he told host Bob Frantz on “Always Right Radio.” But, Baer said, when talking to conservative audiences, “we’re hitting the life issue hard because it really exemplifies why you have to be fired up and go vote.”

That two-track approach is reflected in the pro-Issue 1 campaign’s first statewide ad, which debuted Monday and steers clear of abortion. Instead, it highlights that amendments to the U.S. Constitution require a two-thirds vote while Ohio’s requires a simple 50%-plus-one majority. Ohioans overwhelmingly voted to set the lower threshold in 1912, in a Progressive-era response to rampant political corruption.

Kimberly Inez McGuire, executive director of Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity, an advocacy group, said she believes Issue 1 supporters are playing down abortion in their statewide messaging because they know public opinion isn’t on their side.said she believes Issue 1 supporters are playing down abortion in their statewide messaging because they know public opinion isn’t on their side.

“We’re seeing more and more legislators and opponents of abortion who understand that their agenda is extremely unpopular with the American people,” she said. “We’re seeing special sessions, we’re seeing anti-abortion bills passed in the dead of night, and we’re seeing these denials from those who are pushing a measure that is designed to undercut democracy with the intention of hurting Ohio’s abortion measure.”

Mark Caleb Smith, a political science professor at southwest Ohio’s Cedarville University, said abortion is emotionally charged and easy to understand — and can therefore engage Ohioans to donate, volunteer and vote when they otherwise wouldn’t bother with an off-season election about something as esoteric as how to amend the state’s constitution.

Calling Issue 1 abortion-related also reflects the truth that its passage is pivotal to whether November’s abortion ballot issue passes in Ohio, Smith said. Amendments protecting access to abortion in other states have typically passed — but with less than 60% of the vote. AP VoteCast polling last year found 59% of Ohio voters say abortion should generally be legal.

Kayla Griffin, Ohio state director of All Voting Is Local and an opponent of Issue 1, said her side wants to keep the messaging on Issue 1 broader than just abortion.

“While abortion is on the ballot right now, minimum wage is on the ballot next,” she said. “We are bigger and our democracy is far bigger than a single issue, and we have to be able to navigate that when we go to the ballot box.”

Voting rights groups and Ohio’s former chief justice also are at work on a constitutional amendment to change Ohio’s broken redistricting system.

As both supporters and opponents of Issue 1 seek voter buy-in, some of their messaging has strayed into misinformation.

“Ohio Should Vote for Issue 1 to Help Stop Abortions Up to Birth,” read a headline last week on LifeNews.com.

But the November abortion initiative wouldn’t stop the state’s lawmakers from restricting abortions after the fetus is viable outside the womb, around 23 or 24 weeks.

Medical experts dispute the concept of abortions “up to birth,” saying that pregnancy terminations at that stage are very rare — only 0.7% of abortions in Ohio in 2021 occurred after 21 weeks — and typically involve medication that induces birth early, which is different from a surgical abortion. The procedure, which is also referred to as an induction abortion, typically happens only if the fetus has a low probability of survival.

An email from Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati went a step farther, claiming without evidence that sex traffickers and abortion providers were “evil twins” working together to “aid and abet” one another.

Democrat Teresa Fedor, a former state lawmaker who championed Ohio’s sex trafficking crackdown in the legislature, said she didn’t find a prominent connection between sex trafficking and forced abortion during her 20 years working on the issue.

“My perspective is the anti-reproductive health care advocates are so desperate to pass Issue 1, they will unfortunately use a false narrative to influence their supporters,” she said in an email.

___ Swenson reported from Seattle. The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Abortion messaging roils debate over Ohio ballot initiative. Backers said it wasn’t about that