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Opinion Abortion defenders in Michigan and Ohio get it: Take it to the voters

Abortion rights supporters rally at the state Capitol in Columbus, Ohio, on June 24. (Barbara J. Perenic /The Columbus Dispatch/AP)
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In contrast to some progressive pundits and federal lawmakers, abortion advocates out in the states do not have the luxury of bemoaning all the things the Biden administration is not doing to preserve women’s freedom. Instead, in Michigan and Ohio, they are doing precisely what is needed to confront advocates of forced birth: organizing and taking their popular position to the voters.

In Michigan, Democrats are pursuing two ways to confront a 1931 “trigger law” which would immediately outlaw abortions. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is urging her state’s Supreme Court to immediately take up a lawsuit she filed on April 7, asking the court to rule on whether Michigan’s constitution protects access to abortion. In addition, abortion rights groups are trying to gather about 425,000 signatures by July 11 to put the Reproductive Freedom for All initiative, which would enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution, on the ballot.

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Michigan’s abortion ban would make the procedure illegal and would slap 15-year prison terms on doctors providing abortion services. Reproductive Freedom for All would “affirm that every Michigander has the fundamental right to reproductive freedom, which involves the right to make and carry out decisions without political interference about all matters relating to pregnancy, including birth control, abortion, prenatal care and childbirth.”

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The state’s Democratic attorney general, Dana Nessel, tweeted: “SCOTUS sent this issue back to the states & MI is taking it straight to the ballot box. No more ambiguity, no more fear. This November, Michigan voters will not stand for anything less than a codified assurance of their freedom. Vote yes for @mireprofreedom this fall.”

These efforts may successfully block an abortion ban that would endanger women and could mobilize Democrats who now have reason to turn out in droves in November.

After the Dobbs draft opinion was leaked in May, Michigan’s local NBC affiliate reported, “Polls dating back to September 2018 … have shown that the majority of Michiganders are consistently pro-choice and believe that women have the right to choose an abortion.” It isn’t even close: “In every poll, between 50 percent and 58 percent of Michiganders described themselves as ‘pro-choice’ and between 34 percent and 44 percent consider themselves ‘pro-life.’ ”

Provided the initiative gets on the ballot and Democrats turn out their voters, they could score an early victory for women’s autonomy and perhaps buoy Democrats on the ballot — including Whitmer.

A similar story is taking place in Ohio. The Democratic nominee for governor, Nan Whaley, announced on Wednesday that she will support a ballot initiative codifying Roe v. Wade in the state’s constitution.

Whaley said in a statement that Gov. Mike DeWine (R) “and extremists in the Ohio Legislature want to completely ban abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest.” She continued: “It took less than one day after the Supreme Court struck down abortion protections for DeWine and Attorney General Dave Yost to implement a draconian six week abortion ban in the state, which is before many women know they’re pregnant.” And she warned that DeWine “has said that he wants to ‘go as far as [he] can’ in prohibiting abortions in Ohio.”

A recent Suffolk University/Cincinnati Enquirer poll taken before the final Dobbs decision showed that, in Ohio, “53 percent of respondents wanted to protect abortion … while 39 percent want the state legislature to restrict abortions.” In addition, “nearly 6 in 10 voters (59 percent) said they personally know a family member or friend who has had an abortion.”

On this issue, the poll found, Democrats and independents are on the same side, with 85 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents “wanting the Ohio state legislature to protect abortion rights.” Even 21 percent of Republicans agree.

The challenge for abortion advocates in Ohio is not only to get their measure on the ballot but to make abortion a higher concern for voters. Before Dobbs, it ranked third among issues, behind the economy and inflation.

We don’t yet know whether measures against forced birth will qualify for the ballot or will boost Democrats in these two states. But at least these Democrats understand how to run against tyrannical right-wingers who would treat women as less than full citizens capable of their own life decisions.

This is how one builds a movement, state by state and election by election.