Columbus, Ohio — State battles over abortion rights since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a constitutional right to abortion have exposed another flaw: the commitment to democracy.
As voters in state after state affirm their support for abortion rights, opponents are acting with increasing defiance toward the democratic processes and institutions they perceive as aligned against their cause.
Certain Republican elected officials and anti-abortion activists across the country have responded to losses at the polls by challenging the election results, refusing to align state laws with voter-backed changes, stripping state courts of their power to consider abortion related laws and question the citizen-led ballot initiative process itself.
“We are not done,” Ohio state Rep. Jennifer Gross declared on social media platform X, two days after voters enshrined abortion rights in the state constitution earlier this month. She and 25 other Republican lawmakers vowed to stop the amendment from reversing Ohio’s existing abortion restrictions.
A large majority of Ohio voters approved the amendment, approximately 57% to 43%. In response, the group of lawmakers said in a joint statement: “We will do everything in our power to prevent our laws from being eliminated based on perceived intent.”
Gross joined three Republican colleagues in going even further, proposing legislation to block Ohio courts from interpreting any cases related to the abortion rights amendment, known as Issue 1. Similar efforts have emerged in six other states since that state courts became the new battleground over abortion after the June 24, 2022 Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade.
Douglas Keith, senior attorney with the Judicial Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said abortion politics fueled successful efforts to limit the power of state courts in Montana and Utah and unsuccessful legislation in Alaska and Kansas. These bills are attempts to dismantle the government’s system of checks and balances, he said.
“It seems to me that an attempt to strip the courts of the ability to interpret Question 1 is picking a fight not only with the courts, but also with the voters themselves,” Keith said, referring to the Ohio amendment.
That conflict was on display during a town hall hosted by Gross after his efforts to thwart the abortion rights amendment were announced. One constituent who said she supported Number 1, Emily Jackson, was incredulous.
“You are ignoring the voice. The voice is there,” Jackson said. “We talk.”
Gross told Jackson that he was not ignoring voters but rather reflecting his opponents’ concerns that Ohio voters were misguided. The campaign brought in large amounts of money from out of state for both sides.
Gross did not return calls or emails seeking additional comment.
Proponents argue that strict abortion laws are also undemocratic in the most basic sense because most Americans oppose them. According to News21USA VoteCast, a national survey of more than 94,000 voters, 63% of those who voted in the 2022 midterm elections said abortion should be legal in most or all cases. An News21USA-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted a year after the Supreme Court decision found that about two-thirds of Americans overall said abortion should generally be legal.
In the seven states where abortion has been on the ballot since Roe v. Wade, voters have either supported protecting abortion rights or rejected an attempt to erode it.
That has led some Republicans who support abortion restrictions to target the ballot initiative process, a form of direct democracy that is available to voters in only about half of the states.
“Thank God most states in this country don’t allow you to put everything on the ballot because pure democracies are not the way to govern a country,” said Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and one-time presidential candidate. He discussed the Ohio election results during an appearance on the conservative site NewsMax.
Another elected Republican, North Dakota state Rep. Brandon Prichard, weighed in on X, formerly Twitter, to encourage Republicans to challenge the outcome of the Ohio election.
“It would be an act of bravery to ignore the election results and not allow the murder of Ohio babies,” he wrote.
Some political observers see a greater danger in such sentiments.
Sophia Jordan Wallace, a political science professor at the University of Washington, said that “the frequency and clarity of these anti-democratic attempts are increasing” and that they threaten to cause long-term damage to American institutions and the public’s faith in them.
“And that damage is incredibly difficult to repair,” he said.
For many abortion opponents, the issue is “a sacred cause, something that cannot be discussed,” one that can outweigh the importance of maintaining democratic practices, said Myrna Pérez, associate professor of Gender and American Religion at the University of Ohio.
“Things aren’t static, so you’re trying to find a way to get the system to give you the results you want,” he said.
Andrew Whitehead, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said Christian nationalists, who have deep ties to the anti-abortion movement, have a history of considering access to fundamental democratic processes, such as voting, not as a right but as a privilege. that should be granted only to those who align with their beliefs.
“When it comes to enforcing their vision of America that they believe is ordained by God, they will leave democracy aside,” Whitehead said.
Anti-abortion lawmakers and advocates have already responded in a handful of states where voters generally leaned toward abortion rights.
In Montana, voters last fall rejected a legislative referendum that would have criminalized a doctor or nurse’s failure to provide life-saving care to a baby born alive after an attempted abortion; These cases often involve serious medical problems. Republicans responded by passing a version of the rejected measure into law.
Kentucky Republicans chose to leave intact the state’s ban on abortion at all stages of pregnancy, even though voters defeated a measure that would have denied constitutional protections for the procedure.
In Ohio, some prominent Republicans are rejecting undemocratic suggestions and defending voters.
“In this country, we accept the election results,” said Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, a leading opponent of Issue 1. Republican Attorney General Dave Yost tweeted that he “reviewed” the Ohio Constitution but found no “no exception for matters in which the result of an election is contrary to the preferences of those in power.”
“All political power is inherent to the people,” the document quotes.
Republican state legislative leaders initially promised that the fight to restrict abortion rights was not over after voters spoke. But as their party grapples with the deep divisions of the anti-abortion movement, House Speaker Jason Stephens and Senate President Matt Huffman appear to soften their tone.
Stephens signaled that he will not move forward with Gross’s bill limiting the courts. Huffman, a devout Catholic, rejected suggestions that he might seek an immediate repeal of Number 1.
They were among Ohio Republicans who defied their own law and called a special election in August aimed at raising the threshold for approving future constitutional amendments from a simple majority to 60%. The measure was widely seen as an attempt to undermine the fall abortion amendment and was roundly rejected.
Tensions are already evident for abortion initiatives scheduled for state elections in 2024.
In Missouri, disputes over ballot language are complicating efforts by abortion rights supporters to advance a statewide ballot measure. Last month, a panel of judges ruled that summaries written by Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, an abortion opponent who will run for governor next year, were politically partisan and misleading.
In Michigan, three Republican lawmakers joined an anti-abortion group in a lawsuit to overturn a state constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights that voters approved with broad support last year. Florida’s Republican attorney general is trying to keep an abortion rights amendment proposal off the 2024 ballot.
“We saw voters make that connection in Ohio between abortion and democracy in that first special election,” said Kara Gross, legislative director of the ACLU of Florida. “And we have faith that voters will be able to make the same connection elsewhere in 2024.”
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