Ohio vote tests abortion question one year ahead of 2024 race

Anti-abortion activists Claire Schmitt and Mary Gregg campaign in Canal Winchester, Ohio ahead of the state's Issue 1 referendum (Andrew Spear)
Anti-abortion activists Claire Schmitt and Mary Gregg campaign in Canal Winchester, Ohio ahead of the state's Issue 1 referendum (Andrew Spear)

Voters in Ohio will decide Tuesday whether to add explicit protections in the US state's constitution for abortion rights, in a potential bellwether of how the contentious issue will impact national elections in one year.

In a referendum people in the midwestern state will decide whether to amend its constitution to promise the freedom to "make and carry out one's own reproductive decisions, including... abortion," or leave the document unchanged, allowing for a potential state ban.

With Tuesday rapidly approaching, organizers in favor of the amendment headed out over the weekend to encourage Ohioans to vote.

"We're going to canvass until the very last second... calling and knocking on as many doors and talking to every single voter," Jaime Miracle, deputy director of Pro Choice Ohio, told AFP on Sunday.

The US Supreme Court revoked the national right to abortion last year when it overturned the landmark 1973 Roe vs Wade ruling, letting individual states decide whether to allow the procedure.

In the 17 months since the court's decision, 14 states have effectively prohibited abortion, while others have moved to enshrine the right to end a pregnancy within state law.

In Republican-led Ohio, the reversal of Roe vs Wade triggered a law that would halt all abortions after a heartbeat is detected in the womb --  usually around six weeks of gestation, before many people even know they are pregnant.

The law is currently suspended as it winds its way through legal challenges, meaning that for now it is still possible to obtain an abortion in Ohio up to about 22 weeks of pregnancy.

But the law sparked a national outcry for the short time it was allowed to remain in effect last year, when a 10-year-old rape survivor was forced to travel to neighboring Indiana for an abortion after being denied care at home.

- Private decision -

Although Election Day is Tuesday, Ohio voters have been casting early ballots for weeks.

The constitutional amendment explicitly guarantees individuals' rights 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."

It would allow abortions to be prohibited after "fetal viability" -- when a fetus is able to survive on its own outside the womb -- unless a doctor believes a pregnant patient's life or health is in danger.

After the downfall of Roe, the pro-abortion rights camp notched several victories last year, including a similar referendum to protect reproductive rights in the conservative state of Kansas.

Now, the vote in Ohio is a chance for both sides to take stock and recalibrate their strategies ahead of the 2024 White House race.

Supporters of Issue 1, as the amendment is called, have focused their messaging on preventing the government from interfering in residents' personal medical decisions.

Advocacy group Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights even made a religious appeal to drive home their point.

"As a pastor, I've counseled families on the most important personal decisions, even abortion. Abortion is a private family decision. Government needs to stay out of family decision making," Reverend Tim Ahrens says in one ad.

Issue 1 "gives families the freedom to make their own decisions without judgment and without the government getting involved. Vote yes," he urged.

But abortion rights opponents, including the group Protect Women Ohio, say the amendment is too "extreme."

The amendment is a "radical proposal and whether you're pro-choice or pro-life, it just goes much, much too far," the state's Republican Governor Mike DeWine said Sunday in a Fox News interview.

"It does not fit Ohio," he said.

The governor also repeated an argument made by his wife Fran DeWine in a television ad, that the amendment would allow abortions "at any point in the pregnancy" -- a claim basted by abortion rights activists as misinformation.

Nationally, both sides will closely watch the outcome in Ohio -- long considered a swing state, but which voted for Republican Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020 -- as the results are likely to shape the campaign conversation over the next year.