Kierre Morgan has had an abortion, but it was the abortion she didn’t have that transformed her into an activist. She was 17 and in denial, at first, about being pregnant at all. Under Ohio law, she needed permission to terminate her pregnancy, and — after considering whether she could use a fake ID — she finally had a conversation with her adoptive parents. They overruled her decision. “Their options were: I could have my daughter, and they would raise her, which was a big ‘No.’ …An absolute ‘No.’ Or I could have her and raise her — which I did. There was no other option.”
Her daughter is 29 now, and Morgan calls her her best friend (“I don’t know if she would say I’m her best friend,” she adds, laughing), but she would not wish the life they were forced to navigate on anyone. There were times she didn’t have enough money for food. They slept in homeless shelters and “in motels where there was prostitution outside the door, and there was blood inside the motel room,” she recalls. “You just look at it and you say: ‘This is what I wanted to prevent. I did not want my child to go through this.’”
Morgan’s experience struggling to survive after being unexpectedly saddled with a dependent is not the exception for women who find themselves in that situation; rather, it is the rule. For years afterward, a famous ten-year study showed, women who were denied abortions were less likely to be able to afford food, housing, or transportation than those who accessed abortion care. They had lower credit scores, carried more debt, and were more likely to experience bankruptcy and eviction, among other lasting ripple effects. Her own experience hardened Morgan’s resolve to do all she can to ensure that others don’t end up in the same circumstances. These days, that means volunteering with the coalition of groups campaigning to give Ohio voters the chance to weigh in on abortion laws in their state.
But Republican lawmakers, like Morgan’s parents all those years ago, have decided it doesn’t matter what Ohioans may want for their own futures — they’re in a position of power, and they plan to use it. In a bid to doom a ballot measure that would enshrine the right to an abortion in the state constitution, those lawmakers have called a special election in August in hopes that they can change the rules while most voters aren’t paying attention. And they’re not alone.
For decades, anti-abortion activists agitating for the end of Roe demanded the court return the issue of abortion “to the people.” But exactly one year after the Supreme Court issued its infamous ruling nullifying constitutional right to an abortion, Republicans across the country — including in many reliably conservative states — are confronting the fact that majorities of votes are not backing their extreme anti-abortion agenda. Instead of changing their policies to better reflect their constituents views, they’re working to make it harder for voters to express them.
“It was always a ruse,” says Kelly Hall, the executive director of the Fairness Project, which works to advance ballot measures on a variety of issues in states around the country. “When anti-abortion activists said ‘we want to return this to the people,’ that was never true. And we are now witnessing how not true it was because they are now very explicitly saying, ‘Well, actually, we don’t care about reflecting the views of the American people in the policies that govern access to abortion. What we are interested in, as a shrinking minority, is to impose our views on everyone, and ignore the fact that we live in a democracy.’”
When Dobbs was handed down exactly one year ago, an existing Ohio law banning abortion after 6 weeks gestation went into effect. Immediately, advocates for reproductive rights began laying the groundwork for a campaign that would get the issue before voters. (The ban is currently enjoined while a legal challenge works its way through the court system.) Surveys show supporters of reproductive rights have a good shot winning at the ballot box: A recent poll found that 59 percent of registered voters in Ohio would support an amendment enshrining the right to an abortion in the state’s constitution.
The stakes of such a vote are high: A national research project led by the Society of Family Planning found that there were 24,290 fewer legal abortions in the U.S. between July 2022 and March 2023. In Ohio alone, there were 5,050 fewer abortions than there would have been if the practice were still legal. Ohio was home, too, to one of the most devastating examples of the cruelty such bans engender: the case of a 10 year-old-rape victim who was forced to travel to neighboring Indiana for medical care.
Instead of dedicating their efforts to rallying their ideological allies to defeat the ballot measure, Ohio Republicans are working to prevent the vote from being held at all — and if it is held, making it harder for supporters of abortion rights to win. GOP lawmakers — who banned August special elections in December 2022, citing their exorbitant cost and low turnout — scheduled, barely five months later, an August special election that, if successful, will double the number of counties canvassers would need to collect signatures in in order to get on the ballot. It would, even more gallingly, raise the threshold they must win by from 50 percent to 60 percent of voters. If passed in August, “Issue 1” would make it extremely difficult for citizens in Ohio to propose new amendments to the state’s constitution at any point in the future.
Publicly, officials have denied that election on Issue 1 is about abortion. “That’s not what this kind of a change should ever be about,” Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose said when asked last year. But before a friendly crowd at a Republican Party event in May, LaRose dropped the pretense: “It’s 100% about keeping a radical pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution,” he told attendees. Holding a special election in August, he added, is “one of the ways we can make sure they aren’t successful.” (At the same event, LaRose said he is planning to run for U.S. Senate this summer.)
Hall, of the Fairness Project, has worked on contentious ballot measures to increase the minimum wage, expand Medicaid, or decriminalize marijuana. She’s used to adversaries who oppose their efforts claiming, for example, that they’re just trying to keep out-of-state money from influencing their elections.
“It is the nakedness of what they are doing that is new,” Hall says. “They are saying: ‘We know that voters disagree with us on this issue, and rather than us changing how we govern to be more in line with the people who we are elected to represent, we are going to change the rules of governance itself to make sure that we don’t have to listen to our constituents.’ That is new, that is wild, that is that should freak everyone out — regardless of how you feel about abortion — because it means that we have let our elected representatives get completely untethered from the fundamental role that they are elected to fulfill, which is to represent our views. They are saying in black and white in print, in no uncertain terms: ‘We are not going to listen to you.’”
But it’s not just Ohio. In North Dakota — which like Missouri has a total ban on abortion — Republicans introduced a bill in February that would impose a raft of new rules on citizens working to get a citizen-led measure on the ballot. In Oklahoma, Republicans proposed a law that would allow constitutional amendments to appear on the ballot only in odd-numbered years — ensuring they could never coincide with high-turnout general elections.
The list goes on: Idaho Republicans floated a bill that would double the number of districts in which signatures would need to be collected — a provision the state Supreme Court already struck down once, declaring it “an unconstitutional infringement on the peoples’ right to legislate independent of the legislature.” A similar proposal would double the required number of signatures to get a ballot measure before voters in Arizona. In Florida, which already requires a 60 percent supermajority to amend the constitution, Republicans put forth a proposal this year that would raise that number to almost 67 percent. In Missouri, Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey spent two months refusing to fulfill the obligations of his office by blocking the approval of language for a 2024 ballot initiative that would expand abortion access in the state. (Bailey challenged the state auditor’s estimate of the taxpayer burden, claiming that legalizing abortion would cost the state $51 billion dollars. A judge blasted his strategy as “preposterous” and ordered Bailey to approve the language earlier this week.)
According to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, 84 measures that would change or weaken the ballot initiative process have been introduced in 19 states this year. The vast majority — 79 of those — were filed by lawmakers, not citizens.
Republicans willful disregard for citizens’ desires is even more striking in states that have recently voted against abortion restrictions, like Kansas, where voters of both parties turned out in large numbers to defeat anti-abortion amendment in August, and where, this legislative session, the Republican majority has responded by passing a battery of new restrictions, including a law that requires abortion providers to falsely advise patients that the abortion pill can be reversed. In Kentucky, where a majority of voters defeated an anti-abortion constitutional amendment last November, Republicans introduced five new abortion restrictions this session. In Wisconsin, where a Supreme Court race this spring became a referendum on the state’s 1849 total ban on abortion, Republicans tried offering a carrot, rather than a stick: instead of repealing the ban, they proposed legislation they hope make it seem less cruel, including an offer of tax breaks for embryos.
“One of the reasons I think ballot initiatives have been so successful is that they kind of allow you to cut through partisan identities and see what people actually think. But at the moment, I think the way that politicians are getting away with a lot of this stuff is because partisanship runs so deep — they can do pretty much anything if they don’t have a (D) next to their name,” says Mary Zeigler, professor at UC Davis School of Law, and an expert on the history of abortion politics. “What Ohio Republicans are asking voters to do is to just cede power in general — in the name, obviously, of allowing them to ignore the will of the people on abortion, but it would be about more than abortion. If they went for this, it would make it harder for Ohioans to weigh in about anything.”
For Hall, there is, at least, a small silver lining to the attention that Republicans have attracted through their outrageous antics in Ohio. “It is very hard to get voters’ attention and the media’s attention on what seemed like small esoteric changes to how our democracy functions,” she says. “It’s a very devious strategy from our opponents, and one that is not closely watched in almost any case — other than what we’re witnessing right now in Ohio.”
“I hope,” she adds, “that Ohio marks the turning of the tide.”
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