Ohio Voters Favor Abortion Access Yet Might Vote Against It

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Yes, but how was the question asked?

It’s a query every campaign consultant has fielded from many a skeptical reporter, either at a spin session in a grim campaign office, a hushed-tone coffee at a cafe near a statehouse, or a posh conference room briefing paid for with dark money. Sure, the hired guns could be telling the truth, but the shading matters and the nuance tells the bigger story.

Heading into next week’s off-year elections, nowhere is this question more important than Ohio, where voters are being asked to consider an amendment to the state constitution that would enshrine reproductive freedoms, including abortion to the point of fetal viability with exceptions for the mother’s life. On the surface, it would seem like a slam dunk: a related anti-abortion rights ballot initiative in August was rejected with a 57-43 margin; exit polls last years found 59% of midterm voters said abortion should generally be legal; and roughly those levels of voters want to enshrine abortion right in the state’s highest law, according to polls.

The Ohio Ballot Board, however, chose to summarize the bill using phrasing that is incomplete in the eyes of pro-abortion rights activists, and describes the protections as associated with an “unborn child” rather than a “fetus.” Those advocates objected, but the elected, conservative-leaning state Supreme Court sided with the changes proposed by the Republican Secretary of State—who is vying to replace Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown next year—that omitted mentions of fertility treatments, contraception, pregnancy, and miscarriage care.

And in that detail, abortion rights activists could see an end to their unbroken streak of wins since last summer, when the Dobbs ruling overturned Roe v. Wade. Last month, pollsters at Ohio Northern University tested two versions of a question about the ballot measure. In one, they used the “unborn child” wording that is on ballots, and it drew 52% approval. But when phrased in the language of a “fetus”—which is how it was originally worded when supporters gathered nearly 300,000 more signatures than the 413,000 required to get it on the ballot in the first place—that number jumped to 68%. That 16-point delta is no accident.

Put simply: the way the question is appearing on the ballot could thwart the efforts to keep abortion legal in Ohio.

As The D.C. Brief noted earlier this week, abortion rights have seen victories in places as politically apart as California and Kansas. Ohio, along with Virginia’s legislative races, could offer anti-abortion rights groups a chance for a reset of a narrative that has been hardening for more than a year now. Voters have consistently lined up behind the right to choose to end a pregnancy, a tenet that was established law for a half century before the Supreme Court last year decided to reverse that. Voters are clearly not pleased with this development; just look at last year’s Red Wave that failed to come ashore. But maybe—just maybe—this could find a reboot ahead of 2024’s presidential race.

That does not align with what legislators in right-leaning states have been doing, though. Some 21 states have banned or severely restricted abortion access since Roe’s fall, and other efforts are afoot to curb or cancel abortion rights. Ohio lawmakers passed and Gov. Mike DeWine signed a ban on abortion after six weeks, although a judge has blocked that for the time being. The proposed constitutional amendment would seem to let the voters decide the issue, although it’s evidently not as clean-cut as a simple yes or no given the linguistic gymnastics.

In Ohio these days, seemingly no room is immune from the difficult conversations about uteruses. Out-of-state donors and activists are powering a high-dollar effort on both sides of Issue One, bankrolling roughly $34 million in television ads and yard signs. While the future of reproductive rights in Ohio is literally on the ballot, another pressing question is implied: Is Ohio still the bellwether that so many folks in Washington cast it for so many years?

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.