The Buckeye State stole the show on election night 2023, as Ohio became the seventh state in the union to enshrine abortion rights into their state constitution via a public referendum. 56.6% of Ohioans who cast their ballots voted in favor of the proposal, and the results stand as a major victory for advocates for reproductive rights. These results follow a pattern that has been seen in America between states and reproductive rights groups since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022. The results also remind us about how important states' roles can be in the fight to protect abortion rights in a world without Roe v. Wade. Before 1973, when Roe established the constitutional right to abortion, reproductive rights activists attempted to solidify abortion rights across the nation using a state-by-state strategy, which focused on expensive campaigns and popular votes to pressure states to adopt abortion-friendly statutes. After Roe was overturned during the summer of 2022, this strategy was revived, and Ohio became another battleground where abortion advocates and anti-abortion advocates clashed.
The Ohio public referendum signifies how the fight for abortion rights has evolved over the past decades and can also grant insight into where America is heading when it comes to the abortion debate.
Before Roe v. Wade was decided, the most common state-oriented strategies that reproductive rights groups relied on were public demonstrations, legislative lobbying, and assistance from medical leaders who shared their sentiments and provided credible arguments. These fervent tactics proved to be successful, as New York became the first state to legalize abortion “on demand” in 1970. Other states that followed suit before 1973 were Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington (Washington’s situation was similar to that of Ohios, as it also used a “hard-fought referendum campaign”). These reforms proved to be major wins for women’s rights groups, but the tactics also had the side effects of being exhaustive and grueling. Advocates in New York alone were exhausted of feminist forces, and powerful opposition, in the form of conservative lobbyists and the Catholic Church, had virtually unlimited funds to try and reverse and/or thwart abortion freedom causes.
Then, in 1973, Roe v. Wade ruled that women had the right to an abortion, citing that the Constitution implies such a right. The seemingly endless fight for abortion rights evaporated as the decision ensured that all states were on the same page when it came to abortion, albeit sometimes acquiescently.
Almost exactly 50 years later, Roe v. Wade was overturned, reigniting intense abortion rights movements across the nation. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, the case that overturned Roe, seemed like a massive victory for anti-abortion advocates. But since Dobbs, every state that has held a public vote that protects a woman's right to an abortion has favored protecting it, including, most recently, Ohio.
Furthermore, the abortion battle in Ohio retained most of the elements of the pre-Roe strategies but also had notable differences. Spending remained a major factor in Ohio; however, there was not as much of a monetary war as there was in the 1960s and 1970s. Groups in favor of constitutional protection for abortion (who preached “Yes” for Issue 1 on ballots), such as Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights, raised roughly $29 million for the campaign. This tripled the amount that Ohio conservatives spent on their “No” campaign. However, that is not to say that adversaries of Issue 1 did not attempt to sway Ohioans. Learning from the previous six anti-abortion state campaign failures, there were heavy investments in trying to convince African Americans, students, and pro-choice populations to vote “No.” One of the variables that produced such a lopsided vote was this significant imbalance regarding campaign financing. The “Yes” side simply and massively outspent their “No” opponents.
The post-Roe strategy, from both sides of the debate, seen in Ohio also stands out for one more difference that wasn’t seen in 20th-century battles for state abortion rights: there was an attempt by opponents of abortion protection to procedurally disempower an abortion referendum before it was even initiated. In August 2023, Republicans in the Ohio legislature wanted to make changing the state constitution more difficult by raising the voter threshold from a simple majority to 60 percent. This decision was put through a public referendum, aptly titled “Issue 1” (the first of two Issue 1 ballot measures). The first Issue 1 failed, and the simple majority rule was not altered. This unsuccessful effort by abortion protection opponents was another variable that led to the overwhelming results seen on November 7. Republicans gambled on a high-risk, high-reward legislative gameplan in this case, but ultimately, abortion rights activists were the only ones who were able to celebrate.
After the dust settled on election night, Ohio now stands as the fourth state to pass a constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights, highlighting the importance and recent success of post-Roe abortion movements. The only questions that remain are: Can this happen again? And if it can, how much longer can abortion rights activists rely on this state-by-state method? Hindsight from the 20th century is no longer available to help activists, as Roe v. Wade put a satisfying (but temporary) end to most abortion rights campaigns.
This leaves abortion rights supporters in uncharted territory, as the true sustainability of the state-by-state strategy has not yet been tested until now. With indisputable success coming from public referendums across seven states so far, it is not surprising that abortion rights activists will continue to fight for public referendums as a means to implement favorable abortion policies. But only 26 states allow public referendums like the one held in Ohio, so the state-by-state strategy does have serious limitations. However, limitations have not squashed such movements before. The abortion debate in America has seemingly never been able to fade out of national view. And although the Ohio vote is reassuring some people that the debate might have a visible end, in reality, the debate is loud, strong, and continues to etch itself further into commonplace American discourse.