Ohioans approved protections for abortion rights. But most restrictions remain on the books

Ohioans now have the constitutional right to abortion − a monumental shift in how the state has handled reproductive rights.

But for the average patient entering an Ohio abortion clinic, nothing has changed.

Ohio abortion providers aren't performing abortions after 22 weeks. Patients must wait 24 hours after their first visit to obtain the necessary pills or have a procedure. A dispute over using telemedicine is playing out in court.

"We did not get to the severe abortion restrictions that we have in Ohio overnight," said Dr. Adarsh Krishen, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio. "We're not going to get out of that situation − even with the passage of Issue 1 − overnight. It's going to take time and energy to be able to lift those restrictions."

Most of that time and energy is spent in court.

Mason Hickman, left, and Shakti Rambarraan, front, of the Ohio Women’s Alliance react during a gathering for supporters of Issue 1 at the Hyatt Regency Downtown. The issue establishes a constitutional right to abortion. But what comes next?
Mason Hickman, left, and Shakti Rambarraan, front, of the Ohio Women’s Alliance react during a gathering for supporters of Issue 1 at the Hyatt Regency Downtown. The issue establishes a constitutional right to abortion. But what comes next?

Attorneys representing Ohio's abortion clinics have sued to permanently block a ban on most abortions. The law, which has been on hold since September 2022, prohibits doctors from performing abortions after cardiac activity is detected, which is about six weeks into pregnancy.

Attorneys for the clinics say this law is indisputably unconstitutional, but Republican Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost says some parts might not be. Yost campaigned against the abortion rights measure on the ballot last year and is a likely 2026 contender for governor.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Christian Jenkins, who is reviewing the case, will decide the law's fate by May 20, according to court filings.

That's just one law. The state has other bans, regulations and hurdles that abortion providers say violate what voters approved with nearly 57% of the vote last November. Attorneys for Ohio's abortion providers aren't disclosing their legal strategy to dismantle those laws, but any approach will take time.

Even though those legal challenges take time, the new constitutional language has been "an absolute game-changer," said attorney Jessie Hill who is challenging Ohio's abortion restrictions. "Just because the changes haven’t been obvious yet, it’s still a really big deal."

What hasn't changed

While Ohio's GOP-controlled Legislature hasn't passed any abortion restrictions since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, Republican lawmakers aren't willing to roll back newly unconstitutional laws either.

Democratic lawmakers introduced bills to repeal various abortion bans and restrictions, but those proposals have gone nowhere.

Some Republican lawmakers have proposed stripping judges of the power to enforce the new abortion rights amendment, but Ohio's House Speaker Jason Stephens said that idea wouldn't pass. “This is Schoolhouse Rock-type stuff. We need to make sure that we have the three branches of the government," he added.

No comprehensive data exist on whether abortions have increased or decreased in Ohio since Issue 1 passed. The Ohio Department of Health's report on 2023 won't be released until the fall. Recently released numbers from #WeCount, a national reporting effort sponsored by the Society of Family Planning, don't yet capture the months after the November vote.

Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region has seen an increase in appointments from out-of-state patients since Issue 1 passed. For example, 51% of patients seeking an abortion in January traveled from other states, interim president Suzanne Bertuleit said.

"Despite this influx of patients, Issue 1’s passage did not immediately eliminate Ohio’s current restrictions on abortion access," Bertuleit said. "We continue to explore all our options to challenge other state restrictions with this constitutional protection in the coming months.”

Asked about the impact of Issue 1, Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis said: "We are unaware of any impact to date of the November 2023 ballot initiative."

Still, "the struggle to protect human life though is far from over here in Ohio," the organization's executive director Peter Range said. "Ohio Right to Life will continue to advocate for the preborn and will not stop working for a culture where every life gets a chance to succeed, including moms, dads and their babies."

What has changed

While much looks the same, Krishen with Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio said the constitutional amendment is already making a difference. He has seen an increase in doctors willing to work and train in Ohio because of Issue 1.

And the new protections provide a reprieve from the onslaught of new regulations and the lack of job security. "From a staff perspective, there been sort of a sigh of relief," Krishen said.

To pass the constitutional amendment, abortion rights advocates built a roster of donors and engaged activists, said Kellie Copeland, executive director of Pro-Choice Ohio. "We're in a much different position than we were even two years ago."

Advocates hope to deploy those resources to protect LGBTQ rights at the statehouse and elect Democratic judges to the Ohio Supreme Court that will oversee abortion challenges. They also support redistricting reform, which could make it easier to enact abortion protections in the state Legislature.

Outside of Ohio, there is a looming fight over a national abortion ban. Former President Donald Trump supports a 16-week ban with exceptions, the New York Times reported in February. President Joe Biden has said he's "not big on abortion" but has often said the Roe v. Wade court decision "got it right."

A national abortion ban would undo all of the work Ohioans did to pass Issue 1, Copeland said. "We can't allow that to happen."

On Wednesday, a nationwide group of doctors, including those who backed Ohio's reproductive rights amendment, formed Healthcare Workers for Reproductive Freedom to safeguard in vitro fertilization after an Alabama Supreme Court decision threatened it there. The state's Republican governor recently signed IVF protections in response to that ruling.

Even though Ohio voters passed constitutional protections, the battle over reproductive rights is far from over in Ohio and elsewhere, Copeland said. "It's one thing to amend the constitution. It's another thing to make it real."

Jessie Balmert is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Ohio voters backed abortion rights, but little has changed in 2024