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Abortion Initiative Qualifies for the Nov. 2023 Ballot in Ohio

On Tuesday there was even some hard news that relates to abortion. Supporters of reproductive rights submitted an initiative to Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) that would insert a guaranteed right to an abortion in the Ohio Constitution. They had over 700,000 signatures, far more than the 414,000 needed to make it on the Nov. 2023 ballot. Organizers always overshoot the mark because canvassers don't really know if someone they grab on the street and get to sign a petition is an eligible Ohio voter. The Secretary's office checks all the signatures. They found 495,938 valid signatures, more than enough. So LaRose has announced that the measure will be on the ballot this fall. Like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), LaRose is a conservative, but he is also honest and does his job according to the law.

Will the measure get 50% + 1 votes in November? That may not matter because on Aug. 8, less than 2 weeks from now, there is a special election on Issue 1. If passed, it would raise the threshold for ballot initiatives to 60% + 1. The legislature put this on the ballot in a summer special election in the hopes of getting rid of pesky citizen initiatives, like the abortion one. If Issue 1 passes, then the abortion initiative this November will have to meet the 60% + 1 threshold.

Somewhat indirectly, then, the August measure is really about abortion. LaRose has explicitly said that the August measure is not about abortion. You should take that literally but not seriously. It was very misleading of him to say that, but that was intentional on his part. He is strongly against abortion and wants the August measure to pass. In May he said: "The August measure is 100% about keeping a radical, pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution." He really, really wants the August measure to pass and then the November measure to fail. Despite his personal views, pro-choice activists hope he will count all the votes correctly. LaRose is running for the Senate, which complicates his position. If he counts all the votes correctly and abortion is enshrined in the state Constitution, some Republicans will say: "Why did you allow that to happen?" This will put some pressure on him to see that that doesn't happen. Raffensperger resisted the pressure put on him. By November we'll know how good LaRose is about resisting it as well.

In Nov. 2022, voters in Kentucky voted 52-48 to reject a measure that would have banned almost all abortions in Kentucky. Ohio is not as deep red as Kentucky, so the abortion amendment is almost certain to get 50% + 1. Whether it gets 60% + 1 is another story, though, so the August election is of crucial importance for abortion in the state. It is also important for women in Indiana and West Virginia, where the procedure is effectively outlawed. Indiana borders four states: Michigan (where abortion is allowed), Illinois (where abortion is allowed), Kentucky (where abortion is outlawed by law rather than by the state Constitution), and Ohio (where everything depends on the two initiatives).

If the August measure in Ohio fails to get 50% + 1 and the November one gets 50% + 1, then women in Indiana will be able to obtain abortions in Michigan, Illinois, or Ohio. That means that pregnant women in Indiana east of Indianapolis will be able to get one in Dayton, OH, or Cincinnati, OH, in less than 2 hours' drive. West of Indianapolis, they can go to Illinois (Champaign, IL, is 2 hours west of Indianapolis on I-74). In fact, if abortion becomes legal in Ohio, there is no place in Indiana more than 2 hours' drive from a state where abortion is legal. To the extent that is not already the case, we expect abortion clinics to be set up on the roads from Indiana to Michigan and Illinois just inside those states to handle out-of-state patients. If abortion is legalized in Ohio, there as well. After all, a clinic does not need surgical facilities. All it needs is a doctor to write prescriptions for mifepristone and misoprostol and a minipharmacy that stocks both. The doctor might not even need to be present if video consultations are permitted and e-mail prescriptions are allowed. If abortion is legalized in Ohio, it also means that no place in mountainous West Virginia will be more than about 3 hours from a state (Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, or Ohio) that allows abortions. Thus the two initiatives could de facto make abortions possible in three states.

If the Ohio amendment passes, then the abortion map will look like this:

Map of states by abortion

The green states would then show where abortion is legal up to at least 20 weeks, often more. In the purple states, it is illegal in nearly all cases, but it is legal in an adjacent state. We didn't measure all the distances, but it is probably not more than a 3-hour drive from any point in any of the purple states to a state where it is legal. Even if there is no clinic on the border, it is probably possible for a motivated person in any of them to hit the road by 6 a.m. and be home before midnight with abortion pills. Wisconsin is complicated because a 173-year-old law bans surgical abortions but it may not cover medical abortions, which were not done in 1849. The courts have suspended the law for the time being. It will eventually hit the state Supreme Court (see below).

Texas is a special case because it is so big. It borders New Mexico (where abortions are legal up until the moment of birth), but it is a 10-hour drive from Houston to Carlsbad, NM, which has an abortion clinic. That means staying overnight somewhere away from home, which adds cost and complexity. Austin is 8 hours from the clinic and San Antonio is 7 hours each way. That's pushing the envelope for a one-day trip. Effectively, Abilene (4½ hours) is about the limit for an easyish one-day out-and-back trip. Anyone west of Abilene should be able to make it to the clinics in Carlsbad or Las Cruces and back in a day. For people in South Texas, Mexico is an option as most of the border states there allow it. However, a passport, passport card, or SENTRI card is needed, and these take time and money to acquire. You also need insurance from a Mexican insurance company if you are coming by car and a Mexican visa (FMM).

So in summary, while the anti-abortion forces may have won the war in many states, in reality, women in most states outside the South can get to an abortion clinic and back in a day if they are sufficiently motivated, which most probably are. Only in the deep South (white on the map) and parts of East Texas is it hard to get to an abortion clinic and back in a day with a car. For pregnant women there, the main option will be telemedicine and pills mailed from a blue state with a shield law or from a pharmacy abroad. (V)

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