Abortion rights amendment petition writers sue Ohio Ballot Board for ‘deceptive’ summary

By: - August 29, 2023 11:04 am
A giant statue of a gavel, set in a small pool outside a court building.

“Gavel,” a sculpture by Andrew F. Scott, outside the Supreme Court of Ohio. (Sam Howzit/Creative Commons)

A coalition supporting a constitutional amendment on reproductive rights will take their arguments against a “deceptive” summary approved and written by the Ohio Ballot Board to the state supreme court.

Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit Monday asking the Ohio Supreme Court either to order the ballot board to use the full text of the amendment on ballots this November, or to “correct blatant inaccuracies” and use “language that fully, accurately and impartially describes the amendment’s scope and effects.”

“Ohioans are constitutionally entitled to ballot language that allows them to make an informed decision about how they will cast their votes,” the complaint, filed with the court on Monday night, stated.

The ballot board, the group states, “strays from this path of adherence to official duty” in passing the board-written summary.

OURR, joined also by health professionals and other individuals, says the summary approved by the ballot board last week violates the constitution by including ballot language that would “mislead, deceive or defraud” voters, something specifically prohibited in the constitutional article on amendment proposals.

“The language the Ballot Board adopted at its August 24, 2023, meeting flouts those requirements and aims improperly to mislead Ohioans and persuade them to oppose the amendment,” according to court documents filed by the group.

The board met on Aug. 24 to consider what language would show up on the ballot with regard to Issue 1, the reproductive rights amendment, and Issue 2, with regard to recreational marijuana.

During the meeting, no testimony was presented on the reproductive rights amendment, but the board spent some time debating a summary written by “staff,” according to Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (also the chair of the ballot board), though he also said he “worked extensively on drafting this.”

The summary makes changes abortion rights advocates say alter the language in a biased way, such as using “unborn child” rather than the medically accurate term “fetus,” and changing “pregnant patient” to “pregnant woman.”

It also removes a list of procedures and medical conditions, like miscarriages and fertility treatments, in which abortion and reproductive care is used.

In suing the ballot board about the language, the abortion rights groups and individuals said the summary actually “inverts” protections that would be given in the amendment by saying the amendment would “always allow an unborn child to be aborted” if a physician determines it necessary. Amendment supporters say the actual language of the amendment “would prohibit such an abortion if the patient objects to it.”

“These and other defects … render the ballot language unlawful,” the lawsuit states.

The two Democrats on the ballot board, state Sen. Paula Hicks-Hudson, D-Toledo, and state Rep. Elliot Forhan, D-South Euclid, stood in opposition to the summary language, pushing for the use of the full text, as had been requested by the abortion rights groups prior to the meeting.

However, state Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, spoke out against the amendment even as she conceded that the ballot board was not present to debate the merits of the amendment.

She called the amendment “dangerous” and pledged to fight “tirelessly” against it.

The summary language passed on a vote of 3-2.

“The Ballot Board’s members adopted politicized, distorted language for the amendment, exploiting their authority in a last ditch effort to deceive and confuse Ohio voters ahead of the November vote on reproductive freedom,” OURR’s Lauren Blauvelt said in a statement.

Ohio Right to Life head Mike Gonidakis, who supported the ballot board summary when it was adopted, said he expects the court to reject the legal challenge.

“Planned Parenthood is obviously worried that Ohioans are realizing that the language is dangerous and a bridge (too) far for even pro-choice women,” Gonidakis said, mirroring comments Gavarone gave during the ballot board meeting.

The lawsuit points to two other instances in which – though some justices might have a conservative view of abortion rights – the court has “rebuffed attempts to strip the amendment from the ballot – both times unanimously.”

“History bears testimony that by such quiet acts of duty is the rule of law maintained,” the group states in its complaint to the court.

The parties asked for an expedited case schedule because the action has been filed less than 90 days before the general election on November 7.

The Ohio Supreme Court has not yet responded to the request.

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.