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Backers blast approved ballot language for Ohio's fall abortion amendment as misleading

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio Ballot Board approved language Thursday for a fall measure seeking to establish abortion access as a fundamental right, but one Democratic member blasted it as “rife with misleading and defective language.”

Key among opponents’ objections were several aspects of language developed by Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, an abortion opponent, which they warned could prompt a legal challenge.

Among the revisions, the word “fetus” in the amendment was changed to “unborn child” in the ballot description.

The original language seeks to assure access to abortion through what is called viability, when the fetus is able to survive outside the womb. It states, “abortion may be prohibited after fetal viability,” but not in cases where a treating physician deems the procedure necessary to protect the life or health of the pregnant person.

LaRose's summary turned that section on its head. It now says the amendment would “always allow an unborn child to be aborted at any stage of pregnancy, regardless of viability if, in the treating physician's determination” the life and health exception applies.

“The entire summary is propaganda,” said Lauren Blauvelt, co-chair of Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights, the statewide coalition of organizations supporting abortion rights and related causes that has proposed the amendment.

She noted that the state’s Republican attorney general, Dave Yost, certified the group’s original wording as fair and accurate and that 700,000 Ohioans read it when they signed petitions to get the measure on the fall ballot.

“The amendment that is put forward is clear about reproductive freedom and reproductive health care decisions that Ohioans should be able to make for themselves, and that is ultimately what the vote in November will be about,” she said.

The measure, as initially envisioned, seeks to establish “a fundamental right to reproductive freedom” with “reasonable limits.”

In language similar to a constitutional amendment that Michigan voters approved last November, it would require restrictions imposed past a fetus’ viability outside the womb — which is typically around the 24th week of pregnancy and long the standard under Roe v. Wade — the landmark case that assured nationwide abortion access until it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2022.

LaRose stood by the summary at the meeting, emphasizing that the full text of the amendment would be available at polling locations and published in newspapers statewide.

Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis, leader of the state's oldest and largest anti-abortion group, complimented the language. He said it does a better job than the original at conveying the sweep of the abortion amendment's reach.

LaRose has labeled the abortion question Issue 1, the same as an August ballot measure to limit citizens' ability to amend the Ohio Constitution that turned out to be wildly unpopular with voters. The amendment was defeated 57% to 43%.

This fall's Issue 2 will be a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana, whose ballot language cleared the committee Thursday without discussion.

Gonidakis, a key champion of the August amendment to raise the threshold for constitutional changes to 60%, said educating voters on the transposition of the ballot labels will be a challenge.

“The most unique thing that we have going now is that I just spent 90 days telling everyone to vote ‘yes’ on Issue 1, now we're going to be telling everyone to vote ‘no’ on Issue 1,” he said. “So, we have our work cut out for us, but we know at the end of the day this is a bridge too far even for pro-choice Ohioans.”

Blauvelt said she's not worried.

“We're excited to continue talking to all Ohio voters about voting ‘yes’ in November,” she said.

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This story was first published on August 24, 2023. It was updated on August 25, 2023, to remove an erroneous reference to the proposal being advanced by Democrats. It is being advanced by the statewide coalition Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights.