Ohio’s Citizen-Led Reproductive Rights Victory

Marlaina A. Leppert-Wahl

The author and one of her four daughters at a reproductive rights rally. Her sign reads, “I’m here for my 4 daughters. Keep your bans off their bodies.”

WITH THE SUPREME Court’s blessing, ultra-conservatives in the Ohio government tried hard to take away 50 years of reproductive rights using political manipulation and illegal tactics.

But Ohioans rose to the challenge to successfully regain those rights through a citizen-led initiative on the ballot on November 7, 2023. The passage of Issue 1 amended the Ohio Constitution to enshrine abortion and reproductive rights including contraception, fertility treatments and miscarriage care.

Even with this victory, we cannot be complacent. Ohioans, and all Americans, need to be aware of the tactics and manipulation of the opposition and the dire consequences if these protections disappear.

When the news leaked out in early May 2022 of the Supreme Court draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade, my own fears came flooding in like a dam break.

Most Americans at my age — 58 — have no recollection of a world without the protections of Roe. I, however, had spent formative years of my life as a teenager and young adult in Spain, which in the 1980s, criminalized most abortions.

I vividly remember young women’s des­peration at contemplating unwanted pregnancies. I remember those with the financial means who got on planes to seek abortions in other countries. For those less fortunate, the stories included attempts to end pregnancies with wire coat hangers, overdoses, or by throwing themselves down flights of stairs.

I remember always feeling thankful that my country, the United States, protected women from being forced into these unthinkable situations during the most difficult moments of their lives. As a young American woman, I felt safe, valued, and empowered at home.

Today, as a mother of seven adult children of child-bearing age, I was both incredulous and dismayed to think that my four daughters would no longer have the autonomy over their own bodies and lives that I had been afforded under Roe.

With our rights still momentarily intact, my oldest daughter and I joined protests in Cincinnati’s Fountain Square against the impending decision. The prognosis for our beloved Ohio was especially horrifying, as the reversal of Roe meant that a six-week abortion ban would go into effect in our state under a hitherto unconstitutional law passed by the Ohio legislature in 2019.

From Canvassing to Courtrooms

On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision handed abortion legislation back to the states. Within hours, one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country went into effect in Ohio.

The Heartbeat Law, with no exceptions for rape or incest, banned abortion after the detection of fetal cardiac activity, usually six weeks into a pregnancy.(1) This unconstitutional law was deliberately pushed through Ohio’s shamelessly gerrymandered Republican legislature and signed by Governor Mike DeWine in April 2019 in anticipation of changes in the Supreme Court’s position.

The end of Roe marked the start of a race against time. Ohio citizens went to work to get an initiative on the ballot to protect the rights of pregnant individuals. The Ohio Constitution allows “citizens to place an issue directly before voters on a statewide ballot” including initiatives to amend the constitution.(2)

Since the ultra-conservative state legislature has shown nothing but disdain for reproductive freedoms, a citizen-driven, direct vote on the issue was the only chance to protect those in need of safe, legal, and accessible abortion care.

Average Ohioans fanned out across the state to collect the required number of signatures from registered voters to be able to get the initiative, which would become Issue 1, on the ballot in November 2023. My daughter and I were among the canvassers.

We joined others at our county’s Democratic Party headquarters to pick up and deliver petitions. Many canvassers went door-to-door in neighborhoods, solicited signatures in high traffic shopping areas, and set up tents at festivals.

These strategies were not as apparent in our very conservative Warren County, which shares characteristics with the nearby Bible Belt. We therefore devised an action plan that took us to progressive, artsy venues in Cincinnati in neighboring Hamilton County, and we hit up friends and family members in five southeast Ohio counties.

Horrific Consequences of the Law

The six-week abortion ban was in force for only three months before a Hamilton County court blocked it, but the fallout from this extremist legislation was already producing shockwaves. After only a few days of the law being in effect, a story of a 10-year-old Ohio rape victim forced to go to Indiana for abortion care made the national news.

This was followed by Ohio Republican leaders publicly calling the case a hoax, a “garbage lie” according to Alex Triantafilou, who now serves as chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.(3)

GOP leaders later shifted focus to the fact that the girl’s rapist was an undocumented immigrant, rather than examine the horrific flaws in their own legislation that would force a child to bear her rapist’s baby or flee the state for an abortion.

The six-week ban led to a multitude of other traumatic consequences. At least two other child rape victims left Ohio to have abortions during that time. Pregnant women with cancer could not receive the treatment they needed while pregnant, nor could they terminate their pregnancies in Ohio. (Dewitt, David, 2023)

Women whose pregnancies faced severe complications, even those who had given partial birth far too early in their pregnancies, were forced to wait for fetal demise before the fetuses could be removed. Women devastated by the news that their babies lacked vital organs for survival were told that they had to carry the pregnancies to the end, just to give birth to a stillborn baby or one who would quickly die. (Dewitt, David, 2023)

Doctors were now facing the potential loss of their medical licenses and felony criminal charges to render the care their patients needed. Pregnant women who wanted babies were traumatized by loss and re-traumatized by the legal constraints that denied them the medical care their conditions required. (Dewitt, David, 2023)

Under the six-week ban, many women and girls who sought abortions for unwanted pregnancies were inconsolable, with some threatening suicide or self-imposed abortions. (Dewitt, David, 2023)

The result of the lower court injunction in September 2022 was to permit abortions in Ohio through the first 21 weeks of pregnancy. This certainly spared many others similar grief. However, the Republican-controlled Ohio Supreme Court was poised to consider whether to lift the injunction as we led up to the Issue 1 vote to protect abortion rights through a state constitutional amendment in November 2023.

A rejection of Issue 1 would likely have brought back Ohio’s Heartbeat Law and the nightmare scenarios that accompanied it. (Dewitt, David, 2023)

Navigating Dirty Tricks

While average Ohioans were toiling to get Issue 1 on the November ballot, the General Assembly was devising new ways to live up to its reputation as the most corrupt state legislature in the country, a designation given to it by the FBI.(4)

Republicans have created super-majorities in the Ohio House and Senate by drawing election district maps in their favor. This gerrymandering has been struck down as unconstitutional multiple times in recent years by the Ohio Supreme Court. One of the results is a legislature that is far more extreme on abortion than the voters.(5)

Recognizing that the citizen-led initiative to amend the Ohio constitution would make it onto the November ballot and would likely pass, the Republicans in the legislature sought to change the rules of the game.

After passing a law earlier in the year abolishing August special elections due to high costs and low voter turnout, the GOP lawmakers scheduled a special election in August 2023 to raise the threshold for passing a constitutional amendment from a simple majority (50% plus one) to a 60% threshold.

This referendum, confusingly, was also Issue 1, as Ohio initiatives and referenda are labeled by number as they appear on the ballot. August Issue 1 was a blatant attempt to block the abortion rights amendment. Republicans who publicly linked August Issue 1 to the abortion issue included Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose.

Comments made by LaRose at a Lincoln Day event in Seneca County in May demonstrate the intent: “This is 100% about keeping a radical, pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution. The left wants to jam it in there this coming November. …The left has some really dangerous plans, and this is one of the ways that we can make sure they’re not successful.”(6)

In response, voters turned out in higher-than-usual numbers for a special election and resoundingly rejected the measure to increase the threshold, with a vote of 57.11% against to 42.89% in favor of August Issue 1.(7)

This was not the end of the dirty tricks, however. Like me, many Ohioans learned about the work of the Ohio Ballot Board for the first time through this process only because of the controversy it created.

Ohio law gives a state Ballot Board the power to determine the final language that will appear on the ballot and oversee efforts to inform voters. The secretary of state chairs the five-member board. For the November election, the board was appointed by Republicans and chaired by Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose — yes, the same politician working openly to block the abortion rights measure.

The Board approved ballot language for Issue 1 over strong objections by Democrats, using language like “unborn child” instead of “fetus” and mischaracterized the prohibition on abortion after fetal viability.

Although the language in the state constitution would remain the same as the original proposal, the text on the ballot was altered in what can only be understood as a last-ditch effort to sway some voters. The conservative Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the Ballot Board’s language when Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights filed a complaint.(8)

Despite the deliberate obstacles, which left many of us frustrated and indignant, the campaign to pass the amendment gained momentum. In fact, the underhanded tactics had backfired.

The August special election outcome demonstrated the support for abortion rights and probably dissuaded anti-abortion donors from giving more.(9) Following the defeat of the August Issue 1, the proponents for reproductive rights were able to raise three times as much money as the opposition.

Ohioans donated funds, some through state and local affiliates of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union. And we were grateful for others from out of state, like the Sixteen Thirty Fund and the Open Society Policy Fund, which contributed to this fight against the egregious reversal of basic rights.

Money poured in to support the Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights, the coalition of statewide reproductive health, rights, and justice organizations.(10)

Faith, Politics, and Reproductive Rights

Catholic organizations were among the major financial donors to the campaign against reproductive rights, ironically called Protect Women Ohio. Throughout the Greater Cincinnati area, the work of the Church against this issue was very visible.

I happened to be present as a guest at a Sunday mass in the weeks before the November election to hear a recorded message by Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr urging the faithful to vote against the amendment.

The message was broadcast in churches throughout the Cincinnati Archdiocese that day. As we left the sanctuary, they were handing out “Vote No on Issue 1” yard signs for parishioners to post in their yards.

Some people of faith, including myself, are disturbed by the attack on religious freedoms inherent in opposition to reproductive rights. There are a variety of stances on abortion across and even within faith groups, and among Americans who do not identify as religious.

Some Ohio faith leaders addressed their congregations in support of Issue 1. Many worked within Faith Choice Ohio, a coalition of religious leaders and faith communities that supports reproductive rights.

Faith Choice Ohio has its roots in the movement of clergy opposed to the 2019 Heartbeat Bill as it was being pushed through the Ohio General Assembly. United Church of Christ Rev. Terry Williams was an outspoken advocate of Issue 1 in his Appalachian community of Chillicothe, Ohio “because of [his] faith — not in spite of it.”(11)

One Columbus pastor was featured in a statewide television ad characterizing abortion as “a private family decision.” His message was that Issue 1 gave “families the freedom to make their own decisions, without judgment and without the government getting involved.”(12)

In my own community, most of my encounters with anti-abortion activists were with Evangelical Christians. Among the arguments I heard from those going door-to-door in my neighborhood was their misrepresentation of the proposed amendment as a radical anti-parent issue.

The amendment did not target parental rights in any way. Yet some opponents, including those within the Catholic Church, argued that it would allow children to get abortions, or even cross-sex hormone treatments, without the knowledge or consent of their parents.(13)

Ironically, many of these same people were in favor of the Ohio General Assembly’s drive to severely curtail parental decision- making by legislating a ban on gender-affirming care for minors. Not dissuaded by the public pleas of hundreds of Ohio parents on behalf of their transgender children, the Republican supermajority in the legislature passed the ban in January 2024.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Catholic himself, who had signed the extreme Heartbeat Bill into law that proved so devastating to Ohio women and girls, also did everything in his power to defeat the proposed constitutional amendment.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, he appeared with his wife Fran in a TV ad to appeal to more moderate voters by saying, “Whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice, Issue 1 is just not right for Ohio.” Fran DeWine chimes in, “Issue 1 just goes too far.”(14)

Autonomy over our bodies and reproductive choices is NOT RIGHT FOR OHIO? These basic rights that we had for half a century after Roe and now want for our children go TOO FAR?

The majority of Ohio voters did not share the DeWines’ sentiment. On November 7, 2023, Ohioans overwhelmingly passed Issue 1 to enshrine abortion and reproductive rights in the state constitution with a vote of 56.78% in favor to 43.22% opposed.(15)

Continuing the Fight

This election victory is just the beginning of the work necessary to ensure the continuation of legal and safe abortion care and other reproductive rights for Ohioans.

Mike Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, has made clear that opponents of reproductive choice “are not going anywhere,” and their goal is a reduction in the number of abortions “to zero regardless of what the state constitution says”(16) And Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman has warned that the passage of Issue 1 is just “the prelude to an ongoing repeal effort.”(17)

Some Republican state legislators and their extremist allies are already looking for ways to defy Ohio voters’ support for reproductive choice. State Rep. Jennifer Gross of West Chester is among those who want to empower the Ohio legislature alone to interpret what the new constitutional amendment means for existing laws.

She is pursuing a measure that would “deny court jurisdiction over Issue 1 and make it an impeachable offense for any judge that defied the law.” Ohio Value Voters and Faith2Action issued a joint statement in favor of this far-fetched idea, arguing that the Dobbs decision put “elected representatives” in charge. They reason that this gives lawmakers the authority to withhold jurisdiction from the courts.(18)

How can we remain complacent when those in our Ohio government have the track record they do on the issue of reproductive rights? I will not stand by and watch others make second-class citizens of my daughters by imposing on them moral codes that rob them of the autonomy over their bodies and lives and deny them the right to privacy and religious freedoms.

Left to their own devices, Ohio legislators and their partners in the rightwing religious communities would have us return to the six-week abortion ban at best. These self-proclaimed “guardians of women’s health and morals” have worked to deprive women of the safe and secure reproductive health care they need, imposing on them forced births under even the most adverse conditions.

Republican leaders pushing for the criminalization of women seeking abortion care and their medical providers are the same who use corrupt and illegal means to stay in power and attempt to quash opposition to their extremist policies.

We have learned the hard way that reproductive freedom is not free. We must continue our collective efforts to ensure legal and safe abortion access for Ohioans. We must offer support to those seeking abortion care from neighboring states like West Virginia, Kentucky and now Indiana, where almost total bans are in place.

We must find ways to support pro-choice campaigns in Arizona, Florida and Nevada, where similar referenda will be on those state ballots in 2024. And we must not lose sight of the goal of restoring these fundamental rights for women across America.


  1. Eddings, Amy. “Ohio after Roe.” Ideastream Public Media Podcast. January 12, 2023. https://www.npr.org/podcasts/1150798603/ohio-after-roe.
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  2. Ohio Attorney General. “Ballot Initiative and Referendum Processes.” (Accessed January 13, 2024.) https://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/Legal/Ballot-Initiatives.
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  3. Dewitt, David. “Rejecting Issue 1 Would Bring Back Ohio’s 6-Week Abortion Ban with No Exceptions for Rape or Incest.” Ohio Capital Journal. October 19, 2023. https://ohiocapitaljournal.com/2023/10/19/rejecting-issue-1-would-bring-back-ohios-6-week-abortion-ban-with-no-exceptions-for-rape-or-incest/.
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  4. Tate, Kathleen A. “Letters: Why Does Ohio Have the Nation’s Most Corrupt Statehouse?” Columbus Dispatch. October 24, 2022. https://www.dispatch.com/story/opinion/letters/2022/10/24/letters-why-does-ohio-have-the-nations-most-corrupt-statehouse-columbus-matt-huffman-republicans/69572358007/.
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  5. Eddings, Amy. 2023.
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  6. Walsh, Maeve. “Issue 1 Is ‘100% about Blocking Abortion Measure,’ Frank LaRose Says.” NBC4i.com. June 5, 2023. https://www.nbc4i.com/news/local-news/issue-1-is-100-about-blocking-abortion-measure-frank-larose-says/.
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  7. Ohio Secretary of State. “2023 Official Election Results.” 2023. https://www.ohiosos.gov/elections/election-results-and-data/2023-official-election-results/.
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  8. Askarinam, Leah. “Abortion Rights Are on the Ballot in Ohio This Election Day.” ABC News. November 1, 2023. https://abcnews.go.com/538/abortion-rights-ballot-ohio/story?id=104519063.
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  9. Swenson, Ali. “Abortion Rights Supporters Far Outraise Opponents and Rake in Out-of-State Money in Ohio Election.” AP. October 26, 2023. Abortion rights supporters far outraise opponents and rake in out-of-state money in Ohio election | AP News.
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  10. Panetta, Grace. “Money Pours into Ohio in Final Push on Issue 1 Abortion Ballot Measure.” 19th News. November 2, 2023. https://19thnews.org/2023/11/ohio-issue-1-voter-turnout-spending-outcome-abortion-measure/.
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  11. Williams, Terry. “I’m Voting for Issue 1 Because of My Faith – Not in Spite of It.” Faith Choice Ohio Blog. November 6, 2023. I’m Voting for Issue 1 Because of My Faith — Not in Spite of It (faithchoiceohio.org).
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  12. Ahrens, Timothy. “Judgment.” Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights Television advertisement. Judgment (youtube.com).
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  13. Tharp, Larry. Church bulletin. Sacred Heart Church. October 1, 2023. Fairfield, OH.
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  14. Askarinam, Leah. 2023.
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  15. Ohio Secretary of State. 2023.
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  16. Sheikh, Samana. “Ohio Supreme Court Receives Briefs from Both Parties Involved in Heartbeat Law Appeal.” Spectrum News. December 11, 2023. https://spectrumnews1.com/oh/columbus/politics/2023/12/11/heartbeat–fetus–abortion–rights–issue–one.
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  17. Evans, Nick. “Pumping the Brakes: Ohio House Speaker Dismisses Effort to Limit Court Jurisdiction on Issue 1.” Ohio Capital Journal. November 15, 2023. Pumping the brakes: Ohio House Speaker dismisses effort to limit court jurisdiction on Issue 1 — Ohio Capital Journal.
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  18. Evans, Nick. 2023.
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March-April 2024, ATC 229

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