Reproductive Freedom and Dignity Are on the Ballot

Seats are up for grabs in Congress, state houses and state courts that could determine the future of U.S. reproductive freedom.

Abortion rights protesters gather at The Gene Snyder U.S. Courthouse on June 24, 2022, in Louisville, Ky., in dissent of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson. This election season, Kentucky votes on Constitutional Amendment 2, which would amend the state Bill of Rights to declare that there is no state constitutional right to abortion. (Jon Cherry / Getty Images)

One hundred and fifty days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, reproductive freedom is on the ballot across the country. And it’s not just seats up for grabs in Congress and in state houses that may determine the future of reproductive freedom in the United States—it’s state courts. And much is at risk.

In Ohio, a partisan state supreme court election could determine the fate of abortion rights in that state. Ohio has a six-week abortion ban that makes no exceptions for cases of rape or incest. Notably, it was the state of Ohio that barred a 10-year-old rape survivor from terminating a pregnancy shortly after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which dismantled abortion rights. In that case, the girl fled Ohio with her guardian, traveling to Indiana, the nearest state where the pregnancy could be terminated. 

This election marks the first time in Ohio that party affiliation will be identified on the ballot for judicial candidates. To some, revealing the party affiliation of candidates for state supreme courts offers greater transparency. But others are rightly concerned about the risk of political influence in judicial elections, or that judges may be misperceived as politicians rather than neutral arbiters of the law. Ohio is a powerful case study.  

Months before Dobbs, each of the three Republican candidates seeking election to the Ohio supreme court—Pat DeWine, Sharon Kennedy and Pat Fischer—expressed their belief that the U.S. Constitution does not “include the right to abortion.” This raised questions of whether they had violated the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct, which requires judges to “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety,” including giving the appearance of promises, pledges or commitments to exercise their judicial responsibilities in an impartial manner. The candidates drew further scrutiny after attending a rally hosted by former President Trump, where he repeated the Big Lie. 

Ohio is one of many states where powerful political action committees (PACs) targeting state supreme courts are pouring in money.   

Conservative organizations like Fair Courts America (FCA), a PAC founded by Doug Truax, have already pledged over $22 million to conservatives running for judicial elections. As Poppy Noor reported in the Guardian, millions of dollars are flooding into judicial races in states like Kentucky, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas—especially from outsiders. Truax is a Republican from Illinois.   

In Kentucky, another state where reproductive freedom is on the ballot, FCA has invested $1.6 million in the campaigns of “three conservative judges vying for election.” 

One of the beneficiaries of FCA’s political contributions is a current member of the Kentucky House of Representatives, Joe Fischer—a staunch opponent of abortion rights who is now seeking to unseat incumbent Justice Michelle Keller on the Kentucky Supreme Court. As a Kentucky legislator, Fischer “amended a bill expanding domestic violence protections … to include language limiting abortions.” According to Fischer, abortion is “the most brutal form of domestic violence.” In 2019, he sponsored the state’s “trigger law,” that ultimately “brought an end to abortion in Kentucky” after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.  

Much is at stake in this election. A woman in Louisiana was refused medical services to terminate a nonviable pregnancy where the fetus had no skull and surely would die after birth. In Wisconsin, a woman bled to a crisis point—for over 10 days—before providers would intervene to assist with her miscarriage. The physicians feared criminal and civil punishments if they intervened any sooner.

Today, women that have experienced ectopic pregnancies, which can be fatal, fear not having the life-saving care—an abortion—if they become pregnant in states that now ban the procedure. Sadly, threats of criminal and civil punishment for aiding or abetting in the termination of a pregnancy now shape whether and how medical providers will care for their patients. And, more women are dying in the United States due to maternal mortality than any other country in the industrial world.   

I tell my daughters, ‘Well, if rape is inevitable, you should just lie back and enjoy it.’

GOP candidate Robert Regan

Much is at stake with the election of judges who will determine the fate of state abortion bans. Local legislatures matter too—especially as candidates have their sights on banning contraception and rolling back LGBTQ protections. 

Save for a few states, women remain in minority representation in most state legislatures—and this matters for reproductive freedom and the dignity of women and girls. 

In Michigan, a GOP candidate Robert Regan said on a Facebook livestream, “I tell my daughters, ‘Well, if rape is inevitable, you should just lie back and enjoy it.'” Surely, there is no dignity in any girl being given that advice in cases of rape. (The controversial Republican candidate was defeated in the May primary by Democrat Carol Glanville.)

Joel Koskan, an anti-abortion state Senate candidate in South Dakota, was charged last week with felony child abuse. The victim is a relative whom Koskan began sexually abusing nearly a decade ago when she was 12 years old. According to the complaint, Koskan sexually abused the girl in different locations across the state. He tracked her movements through GPS, “required nightly phone calls and dictated the clothes she wore.” Koskan, a Republican challenging Rep. Shawn Bordeaux, has refused to step out of the race—even after his arrest.   

As voters go to polls, much is at risk and it’s not only abortion rights. On the line are reproductive freedom, dignity and respect for the lives of women, girls, and people with the capacity for pregnancy.    

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U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Michele Bratcher Goodwin is a prolific thoughtleader on matters of constitutional law and health policy. In addition to Ms. magazine, Dr. Goodwin's commentary can be read in The Atlantic, The New York Times, the Nation, CNN and The L.A. Times, among others. She holds the Linda D. & Timothy J. O'Neill chair in constitutional law and global health policy at Georgetown Law School and serves as the co-faculty director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. She is the executive producer of Ms. Studios.