Diametrically opposed forces on the issue of abortion are done arguing the fate of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.
To the closest observers, from organizers to lobbyists, constitutional professors and activists, it’s no longer a matter of if but when the high court overturns the constitutional right to abortion. A ruling is expected by the end of this month.
Each side is now preparing for life as it was 50 years ago, when states ultimately decided whether to allow, restrict or ban abortion.
The abortion-rights side is gathering financial and legal resources to help people travel farther to a shrinking number of clinics or avoid criminal prosecution if they order abortion pills online and take them at home. Ohio’s reproductive rights movement is privately discussing a ballot initiative to enshrine access to abortion in the state constitution.
The anti-abortion side, meanwhile, is out front in the effort to keep voting maps gerrymandered in favor of Republicans. Conservative lawmakers in both chambers of the Statehouse are pushing laws that would outlaw abortion and jail Ohio doctors for up to two years for performing them (for reasons other than saving the life of the pregnant woman) the day Roe falls. If that legislative effort fails, they’ll ask Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost to jump-start a six-week abortion ban that passed in 2019.
State law criminalizes abortion after six weeks of gestation, before some women even know they’re pregnant. But a federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush has held up enforcement on the grounds that the law is likely unconstitutional under Roe.
“That would be huge if that went into effect. We’d be like Texas,” said Jessie Hill, a constitutional law professor at Case Western Reserve University who is regularly in court with the American Civil Liberties Union fighting for access to abortion.
Trump Supreme Court appointments pave way to overturn Roe
Anti-abortion justices on the U.S. Supreme Court are expected to possibly gut or overturn the 1973 Roe decision in a legal challenge to a 15-week ban Mississippi lawmakers passed in 2018. Oral arguments in the case are over.
And most Americans are either unaware or out of step with close observers who see imminent peril for Roe. In a Morning Consult poll conducted in December, 61% of Americans (down from 73% in 2019) said they still don’t think the high court will overturn Roe, or they just don't know.
“The way we expect the Supreme Court to rule over the summer is something that America hasn’t seen,” said Kellie Copeland, executive director of Pro-Choice Ohio. “And it is the result of something that has happened over time and capturing a conservative majority (on the U.S. Supreme Court) under the Trump administration. Even people who are more politically savvy, knowing something and fully internalizing it are different things.”
“This is the most pro-life court in my lifetime, in generations, in fact,” said Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life. “And we often say elections have consequences. And with the election of Donald J. Trump, he kept his promise that he would only nominate federal judges to the district courts, courts of appeals or the United States Supreme Court who are pro-life.
“If this case was brought to a court pre-President Trump, we’d lose badly,” Gonidakis said.
In 1973, the high court affirmed in Roe v. Wade that a woman has a right to an abortion as a matter of privacy guaranteed by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Roe essentially guarantees access to abortion up until the fetus is likely to survive outside the womb, which is around 22 to 24 weeks into a pregnancy. Roe protects against restrictions in the first trimester while allowing states to limit abortion in the second trimester and ban them in the final months of pregnancy.
Critics complain that the high court overstepped its duty to uphold the U.S. Constitution by inferring a right to abortion.
“I’ve read that document backwards and forwards,” said Gonidakis, who was born a month before the “fateful” 1973 decision. “We don’t see (abortion) anywhere in the constitution.”
Nonetheless, the 1973 ruling has time and again served as the basis for striking down or blocking the enforcement of abortion laws in Ohio, where a flurry of 31 restrictions with increasing severity have been signed into law since 2010 when lawmakers gerrymandered voting maps that shifted GOP candidates further to the right.
“The gerrymandered maps in Ohio are why those 31 restrictions have gotten through since 2011, and it’s why we continue to see these attacks on abortion care even though the public do not support them in Ohio and across the country,” said Jaime Miracle, deputy director of Pro-Choice Ohio.
What happens if Roe v. Wade is overturned?
The possible fall of Roe would impact neighboring states where abortion is more restricted, such as Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia, potentially driving more people to Ohio. And Ohio residents, who would face greater restrictions here, may have to go farther for access as clinics in New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania are bracing for more out-of-state patients.
Democrats in “reproductive sanctuary states” like New York have passed laws shoring up abortion rights. Rights activists in states like Michigan are collecting petition signatures to enshrine abortion access in state constitutions.
Meanwhile, Michigan is one of eight states with abortion bans that haven't been enforced since 1973, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which researches and advocates for reproductive rights.
Kentucky, where one abortion clinic remains, has laws on the books that would immediately reduce or eliminate access to abortion. The state constitution in West Virginia explicitly bans abortion.
A dozen states have passed “trigger laws” designed to take effect the moment Roe falls. Ohio Sen. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, introduced a trigger law in 2021. The bill hasn’t moved out of committee, and Roegner said she expects her conservative peers in the House to take the next step.
'Trigger law' proposed: Ohio bill would ban abortion if Supreme Court empowers states to decide
Gonidakis, the leading anti-abortion lobbyist in Ohio, said Republicans Marilyn John, a former Richland County commissioner, and Jean Schmidt, a former congresswoman and president of Cincinnati Right to Life, will introduce a companion trigger law in the Ohio House to expedite the law’s passage.
The law would criminalize abortions with a six-month to two-year jail sentence and a $2,500 fine, unless performed to save the life or physical well-being of the pregnant woman. Promoting abortions would also be a first-degree misdemeanor.
Gonidakis and Ohio Right to Life are the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit to remove the Ohio Supreme Court, which has rejected multiple maps, from the redistricting process.
Redistricting challenges: Lawsuit asks federal judges to adopt legislative maps rejected by Ohio Supreme Court
With no clout among Republicans in the Statehouse, abortion-rights groups are urging voters to show up at the polls this year for candidates like Emilia Sykes, an Akron Democrat with a master’s degree in public health who is running for Congress, and Nan Whaley, a gubernatorial candidate and mayor who’s “worked with us for years to keep the only clinic in Dayton open,” Miracle said.
“We are endorsing candidates who are passionately pro-choice,” said Miracle.
“We are looking for people who understand what is at stake and who are willing to get into the ring with us and do what is required to serve the people who need access to abortions without judgment or delay.”
Abortion-rights advocates say marginalized groups with higher rates of unintended pregnancies would be disproportionately impacted financially, medically and socially if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe and the few remaining abortion clinics, including the only facilities in Dayton and Cincinnati, are forced to close.
“Not only are they going to be disproportionately impacted because of the access to abortions, but a lot of the clinics providing abortions are oftentimes” the primary source of birth control, health screenings and other medical services, said community advocate and scholar Jenn Dye, director of the Nathaniel R. Jones Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice at the University of Cincinnati. “And not just people of color but for women of lower income, basically that’s their source of health care.
"So, when those clinics close … I would not be surprised if we saw a … decline in health care in general for women. And it's going to disproportionately impact people of color, women of color. And that's going to be tragic.”
Abortion-rights groups have been sounding the alarm that people without the means to leave Ohio for legal abortions in other states will turn to methods of ending pregnancies that frequently killed or maimed women before Roe.
“And, you know,” said Dye, “I think that is a more valid fear than what people want to give credit.”
Reach Doug Livingston at email@example.com or 330-996-3792 or on Twitter @ABJDoug. Seyma Bayram is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Learn more at reportforamerica.org. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3327 or on Twitter @SeymaBayram0.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Both sides of abortion debate in Ohio prep for life after Roe V. Wade