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Michael J. O’LoughlinNovember 08, 2023
John Capannari calls out for a vote against a constitutional amendment seeking to protect abortion rights in Ohio in the parking lot of the Hamilton County Board of Elections as people arrive for early in-person voting in Cincinnati, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

On Nov. 7, voters in Ohio overwhelmingly chose to codify abortion rights in the state constitution, following a contentious, months-long campaign, becoming the latest state to either to protect abortion rights or reject abortion restrictions following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade last year. Opposition to abortion restrictions appears to have played a role in other elections yesterday, suggesting that the issue will again be prominent in next year’s presidential and congressional contests.

The Democratic incumbent governor of Kentucky, Andy Beshear, won re-election on Tuesday after campaigning in part to protect abortion access, following the defeat last year of a ballot question that would have banned the procedure. In Virginia, voters elected a Democratic majority to the state legislature, effectively rebuking conservative political leaders who have been pushing for a 15-week ban.

But Ohio’s referendum was perhaps the most high-profile of this election.

The ballot question there asked voters if they supported amending the state constitution in order to give citizens the “right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions” and to protect access to contraception, sterilization and abortion. Voters sided with the amendment 57 percent to 43 percent. Yesterday’s vote followed a special election in August in which voters rejected a proposal requiring constitutional amendments to receive 60 percent of the vote. A law banning abortion after about six weeks had been on hold pending legal challenges and now will almost certainly not go into effect.

Ohio becomes the seventh state whose voters have chosen to protect access to abortion through the ballot box since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade last year.

Catholics on both sides of the issue actively campaigned in the months leading up to yesterday’s vote.

Catholic dioceses spent roughly $1 million urging voters to reject codifying abortion rights in the state constitution, and the Knights of Columbus added another $1 million, though supporters of the measure far outspent opponents, with much of the money coming from outside the state. The Ohio Catholic Conference argued that the proposed language was too vague, could “justify aborting a full-term baby” and could erode the rights of parents to be notified when a minor has an abortion. Last month, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati said that there had been several instances of vandalism at Catholic parishes and schools, dozens of which had displayed signs against the abortion question.

Reacting to Tuesday’s vote, the nine Catholic bishops of Ohio released a joint statement calling the results “tragic” and saying, “the Catholic Church in Ohio will continue to work for policies that defend the most vulnerable, strengthen the child-parent relationship, and support women in need.”

“As we pray for the conversion of minds and hearts to the gospel of life, we recommit ourselves to defending children in the womb and supporting women in need,” the statement continued. “The Catholic Church and faithful will never grow weary in our mission to help women and families flourish through ministries such as Walking with Moms in Need and other local organizations that provide material and spiritual support and through advocacy with policymakers.”

Catholics for Choice, a nonprofit organization not affiliated with the church, encourages Catholics to support abortion access and had funded a billboard campaign across Ohio in the lead-up to Tuesday’s election, saying that it had spent a “fraction” of what dioceses had contributed to the opposition campaign.

The head of the organization, Jamie L. Manson, said in a statement, “The outcome tonight proves once again that most people see the right to access abortion as a critical issue of justice and freedom, which is why it keeps on winning.”

“Emboldened by the passage of Issue 1 in Ohio, Catholics for Choice will redouble our commitment to fully restoring the fundamental right to abortion access that was so cruelly stripped away through decades of political maneuvering and overreach by the Catholic hierarchy,” Ms. Manson continued.

Senator J.D. Vance, a Republican from Ohio, wrote a lengthy post on the social media site X on Wednesday lamenting the loss of Issue 1 and challenging fellow abortion opponents to learn from the defeat. He said that pro-life political leaders should include exceptions in proposed abortion bans, appeal to voters rather than rely solely on lawsuits and seek to spend more money than pro-choice groups.

“Giving up on the unborn is not an option,” wrote Mr. Vance, who joined the Catholic Church in 2019. “It’s politically dumb and morally repugnant. Instead, we need to understand why we lost this battle so we can win the war.”

Ohio becomes the seventh state whose voters have chosen to protect access to abortion through the ballot box since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade last year, joining California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and Vermont.

Meanwhile, bishops in Virginia had urged Catholics to consider pro-life issues ahead of their vote in yesterday’s state elections. Abortion was not up for a vote, but Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin had proposed a 15-week ban and campaigned with members of his party ahead of the election.

In a letter published in September by the Virginia Catholic Conference, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge and Bishop Barry C. Knestout urged Catholics to vote and to consider the weight that Catholic teaching places on life issues.

“Many issues are important,” the letter stated. But, it continued, “[n]ot all issues have equal moral weight,” and “[p]rotecting life is paramount.”

Ultimately, voters chose to retain Democratic control of the state Senate and also gave Democrats control of the House of Delegates. That means the state is unlikely to adopt restrictions on abortion that are now common throughout the rest of the South.

Since the court’s overturning of Roe last year, Catholic dioceses have collectively spent millions of dollars across the country in campaigns urging voters to enact laws that would ban abortion. The Kentucky Catholic Conference spent $275,000 last year, and in Kansas, the state’s dioceses spent more than $3 million, Religion News Service reported.

In those states, which have each voted Republican in at least the last six presidential contests, voters resoundingly chose to protect access to abortion.

The Kansas amendment, which would have barred abortion, lost 59 percent to 41 percent, while Kentucky voters rejected a proposed amendment that would have effectively banned the procedure, 52 percent to 48 percent.

A Pew Research Center report from last year found that 61 percent of U.S. adults believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37 percent think it should be illegal in all or most cases. Abortion rights supporters are hoping to have ballot measures in Arizona, Missouri and Florida in 2024.

President Biden, who has frequently clashed with bishops over his support for abortion rights, issued a statement last night celebrating the results in Ohio and elsewhere.

“Ohioans and voters across the country rejected attempts by MAGA Republican elected officials to impose extreme abortion bans that put the health and lives of women in jeopardy, force women to travel hundreds of miles for care, and threaten to criminalize doctors and nurses for providing the health care that their patients need and that they are trained to provide,” Mr. Biden said. “This extreme and dangerous agenda is out-of-step with the vast majority of Americans.”

Last month, Bishop Burbidge, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pro-life committee, sent a letter to Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, expressing support for his proposal that would create a national ban on abortion after 15 weeks.

Saying that “the country has been in tremendous turmoil over this tragic and divisive issue,” the bishop of the Diocese of Arlington said that church leaders “think that your proposed legislation should serve as one place to begin uniting Americans regardless of their overall views on abortion.”

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