For Republicans, the Ohio election result should set off a five-alarm fire

Published August 9, 2023

CNN Opinion

The result in Ohio’s vote on a change to its referendum law underscored a political reality that Republicans are still coming to grips with. Pro-life politicians can, and do, rack up resounding victories, even after signing major restrictions on abortion into law. But when the topic of abortion itself is on the ballot — directly, or, in the case of Ohio, indirectly — the side in favor of expanding the right to abortion continues to hold the upper hand.

Nominally, this week’s special election was about whether to raise the threshold for approving amendments to the Buckeye State’s constitution. But the amount of spending and energy around this proposition, known as Issue 1, showed that both sides of the abortion question knew what was at stake. Keeping the threshold for approval to a simple majority means that later this year, Ohio is likely to pass an initiative removing restrictions around the procedure until the point of fetal viability.

That would put Ohio in a similar category to California, Vermont and Michigan, where voters have enshrined an expansive right to reproductive autonomy in their state constitutions. If the trend continues, other states, even those with a reddish hue, may be next.

For the pro-life movement, this outcome should be a five-alarm fire. The disappointing trajectory in Ohio, following unexpected losses last year in Kansas and Kentucky, drives the fact home that no one who fought to see Roe v. Wade overturned, least of all me, had a satisfactory game plan for the battles that would ensue following Roe’s demise.

On the other side of the equation, as Vox’s Rachel Cohen has explored, abortion rights advocates have developed a successful playbook. In red states, supporters of abortion access have not only made their pitch to Democrats, who would be expected to agree with them already, but have successfully appealed to independents and Republicans with qualms about abortion bans that can be painted as extreme or overreaching. That approach will continue to be successful, unless opponents of abortion adopt new strategies.

For the pro-life side, the first action item has to be to stop the bleeding. A continued string of state initiative losses will be demoralizing to rank-and-file advocates and may convince Republican Party officials that the end of Roe was the true victory — and that the party should move on from the issue and stop talking about it publicly. Such an outcome would be disastrous for those who are motivated by the sincerely held belief that abortion is the taking of an unborn human life.

One possibility for racking up a win could look like taking proactive steps in a state where abortion rights are still contested, like Florida. Pro-choice activists there are already gathering signatures to put an expansive reproductive rights amendment on the ballot. A surge of pro-life activism could offer a competing ballot measure that proffered, say, a 10-week abortion ban, when polling suggests there is more openness to restrictions than earlier in pregnancy, coupled with explicit, crystal-clear carveouts for cases of rape, incest or threats to the life of the mother.

This would, of course, be a step back from the six-week ban signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this year. And it may not be the purest version of abortion legislation pro-life forces would like to see. But an imperfect win is better than uncompromising losses. And, given the track record of abortion rights campaigns in even states governed by Republicans, pro-life forces will have to try something new to avoid the same fate.

Their media strategy may need to change as well. As Semafor’s Dave Weigel has pointed out, abortion opponents have adopted a somewhat scattershot approach to their media strategy, running ads warning of “trans ideology” and drag queens in their quest to defeat reproductive rights amendments. That approach has not borne fruit. A more narrowly tailored strategy that allows pro-life leaders to focus on the more controversial abortion cases, like abortions around the point of fetal viability, could give the movement the rhetorical upper ground.

Some national organizations that oppose abortion have focused their attention on trying to get presidential candidates to take a position on a federal ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Such a bill, of course, is politically implausible in the near- to medium-term – it would only be passable if Republicans had a friendly president in the White House, a GOP-controlled House and a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate.

Yet, while national organizations have pressed GOP presidential candidates to espouse a federal ban, a popular groundswell behind a federal 15-week ban is a long way off. A new poll, conducted for CNN by SSRS, found that even among voters who approve of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, two-thirds of respondents think politicians should leave decisions on abortion restrictions up to the states. Putting this push to bed, at least until the political winds change, may help focus attention on the need for both substantive policy shifts and rhetorical changes that could win over persuadable voters who aren’t firmly committed to either side of the question.

There is plenty in the sweeping Ohio amendment that pro-life forces could target. As a staff editorial in the conservative magazine National Review pointed out, the amendment doesn’t explicitly say it will require state funds to be used to provide abortions, or wipe Ohio’s laws requiring parental consent for minors to obtain an abortion, off the books. But its sweeping language, eliminating laws that would “indirectly burden, penalize,…interfere with, or discriminate against” the right of an individual (of any age) to seek out an abortion makes those outcomes quite possible.

Focusing on those specific areas of disagreement, rather than wide-ranging ads about drag queens, might make the vote in Ohio this November a little tighter than some observers expect. But like a football team that has found a weak point in the opposing defense, the abortion rights movement will continue to run its successful playbook.

And unless those of us who consider ourselves pro-life make the requisite adjustments, we may be faced with the unwelcome sight of reproductive rights ballot amendments winning again and again.

Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites) is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

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