Skip to content

Return to the Full Article View You can republish this story for free. Click the "Copy HTML" button below. Questions? Get more details.

Wins at the Ballot Box for Abortion Rights Still Mean Court Battles for Access

Before Ohio voters amended their constitution last year to protect abortion rights, the state’s attorney general, an anti-abortion Republican, said that doing so would upend at least 10 state laws limiting abortions.

But those laws remain a hurdle and straightforward access to abortions has yet to resume, said Bethany Lewis, executive director of the Preterm abortion clinic in Cleveland. “Legally, what actually happened in practice was not much,” she said.

Today, most of those laws limiting abortions — including a 24-hour waiting period and a 20-week abortion ban — continue to govern Ohio health providers, despite the constitutional amendment’s passage with nearly 57% of the vote. For abortion rights advocates, it’s going to take time and money to challenge the laws in the courts.

Voters in as many as 13 states could also weigh in this year on abortion ballot initiatives. But the seven states that have voted on abortion-related ballot measures since the Supreme Court overturned federal abortion protections two years ago in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization show that an election can be just the beginning.

The state-by-state patchwork of constitutional amendments, laws, and regulations that determine where and how abortions are available across the country could take years to crystallize as old rules are reconciled with new ones in legislatures and courtrooms. And even though a ballot measure result may seem clear-cut, the residual web of older laws often still needs to be untangled. Left untouched, the statutes could pop up decades later, like an Arizona law from 1864 did this year.

Michigan was one of the first states where voters weighed in on abortion rights following the Dobbs decision in June 2022. In November of that year, Michigan voters approved by 13 percentage points an amendment to add abortion rights to the state constitution. It would be an additional 15 months, however, before the first lawsuit was filed to unwind the state’s existing abortion restrictions, sometimes called “targeted regulation of abortion providers,” or TRAP, laws. Michigan’s include a 24-hour waiting period.

The delay had a purpose, according to Elisabeth Smith, state policy and advocacy director at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which filed the lawsuit: It’s preferable to change laws through the legislature than through litigation because the courts can only strike down a law, not replace one.

“It felt really important to allow the legislative process to go forward, and then to consider litigation if there were still statutes that were on the books the legislature hadn’t repealed,” Smith said.

Michigan’s Democratic-led legislature did pass an abortion rights package last year that was signed into law by the state’s Democratic governor in December. But the package left some regulations intact, including the mandatory waiting period, mandatory counseling, and a ban on abortions by non-doctor clinicians, such as nurse practitioners and midwives.

Smith’s group filed the lawsuit in February on behalf of Northland Family Planning Centers and Medical Students for Choice. Smith said it’s unclear how long the litigation will take, but she hopes for a decision this year.

Abortion opponents such as Katie Daniel, state policy director for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, are critical of the lawsuit and such policy unwinding efforts. She said abortion rights advocates used “deceptive campaigns” that claimed they wanted to restore the status quo in place before the Dobbs decision left abortion regulation up to the states.

“The litigation proves these amendments go farther than they will ever admit in a 30-second commercial,” Daniel said. “Removing the waiting period, counseling, and the requirement that abortions be done by doctors endangers women and limits their ability to know about resources and support available to them.”

A lawsuit to unwind most of the abortion restrictions in Ohio came from Preterm and other abortion providers four months after that state’s ballot measure passed. A legislative fix was unlikely because Republicans control the legislature and governor’s office. Preterm’s Lewis said she anticipated the litigation would take “quite some time.”

Dave Yost, the Ohio attorney general, is one of the defendants named in the suit. In a motion to dismiss the case, Yost argued that the abortion providers — which include several clinics as well as a physician, Catherine Romanos — lacked standing to sue.

He argued that Romanos failed to show she was harmed by the laws, explaining that “under any standard, Dr. Romanos, having always complied with these laws as a licensed physician in Ohio, is not harmed by them.”

Jessie Hill, an attorney representing Romanos and three of the clinics in the case, called the argument “just very wrong.” If Romanos can’t challenge the constitutionality of the old laws because she is complying with them, Hill said, then she would have to violate those laws and risk felonies to honor the new amendment.

“So, then she’s got to go get arrested and show up in court and then defend herself based on this new constitutional amendment?” Hill said. “For obvious reasons, that is not a system that we want to have.”

This year, Missouri is among the states poised to vote on a ballot measure to write protections for abortion into the state constitution. Abortions in Missouri have been banned in nearly every circumstance since 2022, but they were largely halted years earlier by a series of laws seeking to make abortions scarce.

Over the course of more than three decades, Missouri lawmakers instituted a 72-hour waiting period, imposed minimum dimensions for procedure rooms and hallways in abortion clinics, and mandated that abortion providers have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, among other regulations.

Emily Wales, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said trying to comply with those laws visibly changed her organization’s facility in Columbia, Missouri: widened doorways, additional staff lockers, and even the distance between recovery chairs and door frames.

Even so, by 2018 the organization had to halt abortion services at that Columbia location, she said, with recovery chairs left in position for a final inspection that never happened. That left just one abortion clinic operating in the state, a separate Planned Parenthood affiliate in St. Louis. In 2019, that organization opened a large facility about 20 miles away in Illinois, where lawmakers were preserving abortion access rather than restricting it.

By 2021, the last full year before the Dobbs decision opened the door for Missouri’s ban, the number of recorded abortions in the state had dwindled to 150, down from 5,772 in 2011.

“At that point, Missourians were generally better served by leaving the state,” Wales said.

Both of Missouri’s Planned Parenthood affiliates have vowed to restore abortion services in the state as swiftly as possible if voters approve the proposed ballot measure. But the laws that diminished abortion access in the state would still be on the books and likely wouldn’t be overturned legislatively under a Republican-controlled legislature and governor’s office. The laws would surely face challenges in court, yet that could take a while.

“They will be unconstitutional under the language that’s in the amendment,” Wales said. “But it’s a process.”

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

Some elements may be removed from this article due to republishing restrictions. If you have questions about available photos or other content, please contact