The Republican-controlled Ohio Ballot Board's attempt to insert the term "unborn child" into a ballot referendum intended to protect access to abortion in the state is being challenged before the state Supreme Court in a lawsuit filed on Monday.
The lawsuit was filed by Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights and five petitioners who had submitted the original ballot language, calling the board's summary a "naked attempt to mislead."
The 137-page lawsuit argued the Ballot Board's approved language is "irreparably flawed" and asked the court to direct the board to "reconvene and adopt ballot language that properly and lawfully describes the Amendment."
"The ultimate question before the Court is accordingly quite simple: whether the people of Ohio can be trusted, on November 7, to read, interpret, and weigh the Amendment’s text (or an accurate summation of it) for themselves, or whether they will instead be subjected to a naked attempt to mislead perpetrated by their own elected officials," the lawsuit said.
At issue is the language the Ballot Board prepared to appear on the ballot.
The changed text adds four uses of the words "unborn child," a term used by anti-abortion activists that never appeared in the referendum wording in the petitions that were signed to get measure on the ballot.
"That fraught term is in stark contrast to the neutral, accurate, and scientifically accepted terminology that the Amendment itself uses and defines," the lawsuit says. "The ballot language thus unnecessarily introduces an ethical judgment — at what stage of development a zygote, embryo, or fetus becomes a 'child' — which is beyond the scope of the measure and about which Ohioans profoundly disagree."
A representative from the office of Ohio’s secretary of state, which oversees the Ballot Board, said the office does not comment on pending litigation. Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Frank LaRose, has been vocal in his opposition to the proposed amendment.
The five-person Ballot Board is chaired by LaRose, who is also running for the Senate seat held by Democrat Sherrod Brown, and it includes an additional Republican, two Democrats and a fifth member who was appointed by Republican legislators.
The original proposed amendment says that "abortion may be prohibited after fetal viability," though it cannot be prohibited if it is necessary to protect the patient's life or health. LaRose incorrectly asserted on social media the same day the language was changed that the proposed referendum would allow "abortion on demand up to the moment of birth.”
Matt Keyes, a spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party, said: "Ohio Democrats are used to these kinds of dirty tricks designed to silence Ohioans. We’re going to communities across the state to connect with voters and lay out the stakes of the November election."
Democratic state Rep. Elliot Forhan, who is also on the Ballot Board, slammed LaRose and "extremists" for the approved language. The lawsuit individually names the five members of the Ballot Board, including Forhan.
"Extremists led by Frank LaRose ignored medical experts and legal experts by approving ballot language that is blatantly misleading and purposefully inaccurate solely for their own personal and political gain," he said in a statement.
Ohioans resoundingly rejected a proposal Aug. 8 that would have raised the threshold of votes needed to pass constitutional amendments, which would have made it more difficult for November's abortion rights amendment to pass.
In 2019, Ohio imposed a law banning abortions at about six weeks into a pregnancy, but a judge blocked the measure from going into effect as litigation over the law continues. The Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade case establishing abortion as a constitutional right in June of last year, putting decisions over the legality of the procedure back in the hands of states.