Just When You Thought the Abortion Battle in Ohio Was Settled

In cities and states across the U.S., anti-abortion activists—from Ohio to Texas—continue toward their end goal: a nationwide ban on abortion.

Supporters of Ohio Issue 1 cheer as results come in at a watch party hosted by Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights on Nov. 7, 2023 in Columbus, Ohio. The amendment passed, codifying reproductive rights in the Ohio constitution, including contraception, fertility treatment and the right to abortion. (Andrew Spear / Getty Images)

Abortion won big in Ohio last month, when 57 percent of voters approved Issue 1—a citizen-initiated referendum to write protections for reproductive freedoms, including abortion, into the state constitution. The victory came after a long and arduous fight. Banding together as Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights (OURR), activists pushed back against all the Republican measures designed to defeat the ballot— including a failed attempt to amend the state constitution to raise the threshold vote for approving future amendments from a simple majority to 60 percent of the voters.

After months of denial, Secretary of State Frank LaRose finally admitted that the attempted maneuver was, in fact, “100 percent about keeping a radical pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution.” 

In light of this resounding win, one might think the abortion issue had at last been put to rest in Ohio. Instead, it’s bubbling up in the city of Lebanon—whose elected officials are currently debating whether or not to retain its status as a sanctuary city for the unborn. 

In June of 2019, the all-male city council in Waskom, Texas, unanimously approved a municipal ordinance making the tiny town the nation’s first sanctuary city for the unborn. This marked the first step in the campaign of Mark Lee Dickson—founder of the Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn Initiative and director of Right to Life East Texas—aimed at “protecting our cities by outlawing abortion, one city at a time.”

Since Waskom, under Dickson’s leadership, more than 50 localities in Texas have enacted municipal sanctuary city ordinances, and the campaign has been extended into six states.  

Underscoring Dickson’s impassioned commitment to the ultimate goal of a national abortion ban, he recently tweeted, “During the Holocaust, the Nazis took innocent Jews to the gas chambers to be killed. In today’s abortion Holocaust, abortion traffickers (Nazis) are taking unborn children in the mother’s wombs (innocent Jews) to the abortion facilities (gas chambers) to be killed.” 

In 2021, declaring that the idea “came from nowhere but God,” Lebanon became the first municipality in Ohio to approve a sanctuary city ordinance outlawing abortion, which it characterized as a “murderous act of violence.” As Ohio’s sole self-proclaimed “abortion-free” zone, in the wake of Issue 1, Lebanon has been thrust into the limelight as a site of anti-abortion resistance. 

Lebanon’s city council initially appeared ready to concede defeat and rescind the ordinance, in light of its near-certain unconstitutionality. However, as anti-abortion activists began vetting strategies to challenge the successful referendum, its members reversed course. Doubling down on the “anti-abortion stance that led Lebanon to become a Sanctuary City of [sic] the Unborn” in the first place, the council approved a resolution declaring that “unborn children are legal and constitutional persons who are entitled to the equal protection of the laws.” 

Anti-abortion activist Mark Lee Dixon at Trinity Church on Sept. 1, 2021, in Lubbock, Texas, the city where he led the effort to create a sanctuary for the unborn ordinance. (Brad Tollefson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Not one to stay out of these struggles, Dickson is taking the lead in encouraging the council to amend its sanctuary city ordinance so that rather than banning abortion, it instead would be tethered to the moribund 1873 anti-obscenity federal Comstock law, which “makes it a felony to send or receive any “article or thing designed, adapted or intended for producing abortion.” As I previously wrote, his effort to resurrect the Victorian-era law raises the specter of a backdoor national abortion ban by way of blocking the conveyance of essential medications, supplies and equipment—a threat that should not be discounted as the mere fanciful dream of fanatics, particularly given the current composition of the Supreme Court.

But, not all anti-abortion activists in Ohio agree with Dickson’s approach. Others want the ordinance to be preserved in its current iteration, as part of their legal strategy for challenging Issue 1, which one leader claims is invalid because “God-given rights cannot be repealed.”

As Amy Littlefield wrote, the “turf war” in Ohio showcases how the “losing streak at the ballot is prompting top anti-choice activists to trot out a variety of anti-democratic schemes to prevent the expansion of abortion access”—including Dickson’s resolute determination to continue carving out sanctuary cities in abortion-protective states, en route to realizing his ultimate dream of a national abortion ban. 

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Shoshanna Ehrlich is professor emerita of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her books include Who Decides: The Abortion Rights of Teens and the co-authored Abortion Regret: The New Attack on Reproductive Freedom. She is currently collaborating with the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts’ ASPIRE Center for Sexual and Reproductive Health on a minors’ abortion rights and access project.