Major Opponent to Ohio’s Issue 1 Has Ties to Leonard Leo and Other Extreme Anti-Abortion Group

The group calling itself “Protect Women Ohio” is being funded by millions of dollars from major anti-abortion operatives based in Virginia.

People cast their votes at a polling place at The Ohio State University in Columbus on Nov. 8, 2022. (Sarah L. Voisin / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Ohioans are days away from voting on Issue 1, a constitutional amendment that would protect abortion rights for Ohioans and block an extreme six-week abortion ban—that makes no exceptions for rape or incest—from going into effect.

One of the main opponents to Ohio’s Issue 1 is a dark money outfit called Protect Women Ohio (PWO), a 501(c)(4) advocacy group under IRS rules. It was incorporated shortly after the pro-abortion access, grassroots-led effort by Ohioans successfully collected the signatures needed to get that amendment on the November 2023 ballot.  

PWO has published a list of 48 coalition members casting what is a smokescreen of a seemingly home-grown movement. However, we now know that behind PWO’s efforts are the same key national anti-abortion operatives that helped overturn Roe, including Leonard Leo and the Leonard Leo-affiliated anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America (SBA-PLA).

Millions have been funneled into PWO by groups tied to Leo, the lawyer who helped stack the U.S. Supreme Court with the justices who overturned Roe v. Wade and federal constitutional protections for access to abortion care.

PWO and PWO Action have received $53 million in contributions, and 70 percent of those donations are from Leo-affiliated groups. 

The most recent disclosures show that PWO/Action have received $23 million from one of Leo’s core organizations, The Concord Fund—which also uses the name Judicial Crisis Network and was launched in Virginia almost two decades ago to help pack the courts with anti-abortion judges.

Concord’s most recent cash infusion to target Ohio voters—$3.1 million—was made in October.

SBA-PLA—another Virginia-based group that has also received major funding from Leo’s Concord Fund in the past—has given more than $15 million to PWO and its affiliated PAC to date. (Notably, another arm of SBA-PLA, called “Women Speak Out,” was largely funded by another anti-abortion actor: Illinois billionaire Dick UIhlein.) 

PWO has other ties, beyond financial, to SBA-PLA. In a statement to The Guardian, SBA-PLA admitted to working with Protect Women Ohio as a coalition member—even though SBA-PLA is not publicly listed as a member on PWO’s website. 

Yet, PWO has outsourced its field operations to SBA-PLA, which is organizing canvassers in Ohio, paying them to knock on doors to get out the vote to try and defeat Issue 1. Michelle Ashley, SBA-PLA’s Ohio state director, is listed as the point of contact for PWO’s paid canvassing. 

In other words, the coalition that is creating a veneer of “grassroots” anti-abortion momentum in Ohio is fueled by millions of dollars tied to the man responsible for packing the U.S. Supreme Court with the very justices responsible for overturning Roe, which created this crisis in Ohio in the first place. 

This idea of co-opting what it means to protect women and girls … Don’t take our language and bastardize it into something that is not actually true.

Oriaku Njoku, the National Network of Abortion Funds

Donald Trump addresses the Susan B. Anthony List 11th Annual Campaign for Life Gala at the National Building Museum on May 22, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

PWO is also working closely with a national anti-abortion group that has spread disinformation around abortion care and spent millions to eliminate access. PWO and some of its members have spread similar disinformation around Issue 1 and abortion care.

That disinformation was on display recently during an hour-long debate on Issue 1 that aired on television, in collaboration with the Columbus Dispatch, the Cincinnati Enquirer and Spectrum News.

During that debate, a spokesperson for PWO, claimed yet again that the amendment would strip away “parental rights”—a phrase used in recent years to incite anti-trans scaremongering

As a coalition, much of PWO’s disinformation campaign has centered around the argument that, if passed, Issue 1 would allow children to transition without parental consent—which is not correct. 

PWO has also suggested that under the amendment, anything dealing with the human reproductive system could be understood as a “reproductive decision”—but legal experts have called it a “stretch” to claim the amendment includes gender-affirming care, when really it is about decisions around reproduction. 

PWO is ostensibly using the GOP and far-right playbook of stoking anti-LGBTQ+ fears to detract from the devastation caused by abortion bans since the Supreme Court reversed Roe.

“[D]isinformation laden language and right-wing talking points […] infiltrating the summary about the ballot [is] a clear attempt to sway people against abortion access and reproductive freedom,” said Taryn Abbassian, associate research director for Reproductive Freedom for All (previously known as NARAL Pro-Choice America).

PWO has also spread disinformation around abortions later in pregnancy (they use the term “late-term abortions,” a term medical providers and reproductive health researchers reject). Abortions on or after 21 weeks of pregnancy are performed in less than 2 percent of abortion cases. Abortions occurring later in pregnancy are often the result of medical conditions that threaten the life of a pregnant person or the viability of a fetus. They can also occur due to difficulty accessing abortion care earlier, in the first trimester—a rising reality for more and more Americans as 24 states have abortion bans in place or in their legislative pipeline since Roe was overturned. 

PWO coalition members have also individually spread disinformation around abortion care. 

Cincinnati Right to Life’s (CRL) website features a “Black Abortion” page, which claims abortion is the leading cause of death for Black Ohioans, asserting: “Black lives matter but not to abortionists. They profit from killing black (sic) babies. The black (sic) community should be outraged.” (They also publish such claims on local billboards.)

According to the medical community, however, the leading cause of death for Black Americans in Ohio and nationally is heart disease. The appropriation of the BLM movement’s revolutionary phrase “Black Lives Matter” to argue against abortion access is particularly jarring, given that abortion bans cause Black communities outsized harm.

“The people who are experiencing the brunt of anti-abortion legislation are Black and brown folks, low-income communities … people who already have issues navigating a fractured healthcare system. And then we are surrounding [their choice] in shame,” said Oriaku Njoku, the executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds. “Reproductive justice calls us to look at and to use an intersectional lens … [W]e have to look at environmental justice, economic justice, racial justice.”

“This idea of co-opting what it means to protect women and girls, to protect gender nonconforming and gender expansive people, that is our work,” Njoku continued. “Don’t take our language and bastardize it into something that is not actually true.”

Other disinformation claims from PWO members include:

Amidst the fog of such disinformation, one thing that is crystal clear is that the group calling itself “Protect Women Ohio” is being funded by millions of dollars from major anti-abortion operatives based in Virginia. And PWO, along with some of its coalition members, has spread an array of disinformation about Issue 1 and abortion care during its expensive PR campaign over the past few months. 

On Nov. 7, the U.S. will see if the disinformation being funded by out-of-state anti-abortion forces succeeds in getting Ohioans to vote against their rights and limit their freedom to choose what is best for them and their families—or if the movement of Ohioans who successfully put this issue on the ballot will prevail and create a foundation for reproductive justice efforts moving forward. 

True North’s Lisa Graves contributed to this report.

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Ansev Demirhan is a senior researcher at True North Research. She earned her Ph.D. in history from UNC-Chapel Hill and is trained as an intersectional feminist historian. Her research focuses on dark money groups and their opposition to policies that advance equity, reproductive justice, LGBTQIA+ rights and public education. Demirhan has bylines in Ms. magazine, The Guardian, Truthout and Rewire News Group.