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Analysis: 'If Kansas can do it, Ohio can' say abortion advocates. But when will voters have their say?

kansas abortion sign
John Hanna
/
AP
In this photo from Thursday, July 14, 2022, a sign in a yard in Merriam, Kansas, urges voters to oppose a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution to allow legislators to further restrict or ban abortion.

Voters in Kansas, a very red state smack in the middle of America, spoke up last week and gave a resounding "no" to a constitutional amendment that would have done away with abortion rights in the state.

Can Ohio do the same?

The fact is, they can, and will probably have a chance to do so in the not-so-distant future.

But many abortion rights activists in Ohio say they have a few more battles to fight before they can mount a petition initiative to put a post-Roe guarantee of abortion rights in Ohio's constitution.

They need to fight one battle at a time.

"Of course, I was thrilled over what happened in Kansas," said Kellie Copeland, executive director of Pro-Choice Ohio. "As far as Ohio is concerned, it is not a matter of 'if' but when Ohio voters will be able to vote on this."

"There are some people in the pro-choice movement who want to leapfrog directly to a ballot issue," Copeland said. "But we have some work to do first."

In Kansas, only the legislature can put constitutional amendments on the ballot. The abortion-opposed Republican majority in the Kansas legislature did just that, long before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. And the Republicans in the Kansas legislature were gob-smacked when 59% of the those who turned out in an August election (about 47% of the state's registered voters) voted it down.

Republicans in the legislature in Kentucky have an anti-abortion rights amendment on the November ballot. The ballot language is very simple: "To protect human life, nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion."

There's been no recent polling in the Commonwealth and the polling done in the past has been all over the map on the question of abortion.

But, based on the polling in Ohio, there is every reason to believe that a ballot issue placing abortion rights in Ohio's constitution would be approved by voters.

Look at the most recent poll: A Suffolk University/Cincinnati Enquirer poll conducted in June showed that 53% of likely voters say they want to protect abortion rights, while 39% said they want the Ohio General Assembly to pass legislation banning it.

That poll got the attention of every abortion rights group in the state.

In Ohio, unlike Kansas, citizens can circulate petitions to put constitutional amendments on the ballot, even though it is a very expensive and time-consuming process. But Ohio has enough pretty deep-pocketed abortion rights organizations to fund such a campaign.

Just not right now. Maybe in 2023.

"We have battles to fight before we get to that," Copeland said. "First, we have the Ohio Supreme Court races in November. It is crucial that we not let the anti-abortion forces win those seats.

"The Republicans want to install their own puppets on the court and impose their will on the people of Ohio," Copeland said.

I've been saying all along that the Ohio Supreme Court races this fall are likely the most important election contests on the ballot this year in Ohio, because of the far-ranging impact that court can have on a number of issues.

Abortion is certainly one of them.

Right now, Ohio is operating under the law known as the "heartbeat bill," which makes it illegal to have an abortion after approximately six weeks into a pregnancy — or when a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

Abortion rights groups went to the Ohio Supreme Court over the implementation of the heartbeat bill after the Roe decision. The court wouldn't grant a stay on the law, but it did agree to take a hard look at the law's constitutionality. That is still pending and probably will be for quite some time — almost certainly after the November election.

The second battle, Copeland said, will be trying to stop the Republican super-majority in the Ohio General Assembly from passing an abortion law even more restrictive than the heartbeat bill — quite possibly one that would ban all abortions, with no exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother.

And this is in a state that just went through the traumatic experience of a 10-year-old girl being raped, impregnated and forced to go to Indiana for an abortion. Fortunately, her attacker is behind bars now.

There is every reason to believe that Gov. Mike DeWine, the "pro-life" Republican governor who is running for re-election, would sign such a bill into law. This is why his Democratic opponent, former Dayton mayor Nan Whaley, has made abortion rights a centerpiece of her campaign.

"We must fight those battles first," Copeland said. "Then we can start thinking of a ballot initiative. First things first. There is no doubt in my mind that if Kansas can do it, Ohio can."

Michael Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, told Ohio Public Radio's Jo Ingles that he doubts a constitutional amendment would be successful in Ohio. And he thinks the Kansas result was an aberration, the product of an election held in August instead of November.

"It’s not an apples to apples comparison," Gonidakis said. "In fact, it is completely opposite. You see, in Kansas, they had an election on a very important issue — life — in August. If that same election were held in November when people are actually participating, the outcome would have been different just based on the voting trends, the demographics and the conservative nature of the state of Kansas."

He told Ingles that people in Kansas were on vacation, tuned out, or busy getting their kids ready for school.

Well, he would certainly know something about the craziness of holding elections in August. He was the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed by Republicans that resulted in an Aug. 2 primary for state legislative districts. Less than 10% of Ohio voters showed up. Expert testimony, you might say.

Gonidakis and his friends in the Ohio GOP might have a rude awakening coming when that Ohio ballot issue comes — and it will, maybe next year.

There are a whole lot of Ohioans — particularly suburban women of all political stripes — itching to get a chance to vote to put a constitutional right to abortion in Ohio's constitution. They are angry now and likely to stay that way for a long, long time.

Ohio Republicans could well rue the day when they left this door wide open.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.