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Abortion ballot issue for Ohio stays intact

COLUMBUS — In a blow to abortion opponents in Ohio, a fall ballot issue aimed at enshrining access to the procedure in state’s constitution will not be split into two separate issues — one about abortion, and one about other reproductive healthcare.

In a unanimous ruling Thursday, the Ohio Supreme Court sided with the bipartisan Ohio Ballot Board over Cincinnati Right to Life which, on behalf of a pair of anti-abortion voters, had argued that abortion should be considered as its own, separate question.

Justices disagreed, freeing Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights and Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom to continue to gather signatures aimed at making the November ballot. Their deadline is July 5.

A decision the other way would have invalidated the groups’ statewide efforts so far, forcing them to go back to the drawing board and collect new signatures, and twice as many.

But in its majority opinion, the court found that the proposed amendment’s call to protect an individual’s right to make their own decisions about a continuum of reproductive care issues — contraception, fertility treatment, continuing one’s own pregnancy, miscarriage care and abortion — met the standard of applying to the “same general purpose.”

“Even if we accept relators’ argument that abortion is a ‘unique’ act that is ‘inherently different’ from other reproductive decisions, the decision to obtain an abortion is still a reproductive decision,” the majority said.

Cincinnati Right to Life President Rachel Citak expressed disappointment in the ruling.

“We had hoped to see the court require clear and unconcealed ballot amendment language,” she said in a statement. “Instead, we are reminded that that it is our responsibility to educate the public about the dangers of this proposed amendment.”

In a concurring opinion by Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy, three justices disagreed on the majority’s legal basis for determining that the ballot board did not abuse its discretion. She wrote that the question “is not whether the proposed amendment has a single subject, purpose, or object. Rather, it is whether the proposal is a single amendment” — which, in this case, it is.

“The proposed amendment at issue in this case is one stand-alone amendment. It would create a wholly new provision in the Ohio Constitution: Article I, Section 22,” Kennedy wrote. “That should end the analysis.”

The Ohio Ballot Board considered whether to advance the proposed abortion question as one or two issues at a brief meeting in March, determining it was a single issue.

The body is chaired by Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, controlled by a GOP majority and represented in court by Republican Attorney General Dave Yost, all abortion foes. During the meeting, panel member Republican state Sen. Theresa Gavarone expressed her opposition to abortion and said she would vote against the proposed amendment — but she acknowledged that that was not the issue before the panel that day.

Ohio’s Republican-controlled Legislature has set an August special election for voters to decide whether to raise the threshold for passing future constitutional amendments from the simple majority that Ohio’s had in place since 1912 to a 60% supermajority. The outcome of that election — should it survive two legal challenges and go forward as planned — would determine the percentage required to pass the abortion issue this fall.

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