Ohio State students for, against abortion rights gear up for midterm elections

On a brisk mid-October evening, Alexis Humphries clicked though pastel-colored PowerPoint slides in a cramped Ohio State University classroom. An audience of a dozen or so students (and more joining virtually) listened intently as she discussed the November midterm election ballot.

It was their last meeting before the midterms, and Humphries — president of the Planned Parent Generation Action OSU — kept it real with the group: Our democracy is far from perfect, and it's easy to feel discouraged about voting, she lamented.

"But if your vote didn’t matter, they wouldn’t be working so hard to suppress it," said Humphries, a senior studying political science.

Like its name suggests, the club — also known as PPGEN — represents a group of Ohio State students advocating for reproductive freedom and abortion access on campus.

During its hourlong meeting, the club discussed why this election is crucial for abortion rights. Humphries gave an overview of how each elected office — from governor and attorney general to senators and judges — play a role in protecting or limiting reproductive rights and where this year's candidates stand on the issue. She also went over how to vote in Ohio and how to phone bank with the Ohio Women's Alliance.

Voting isn't something PPGEN normally focus on. But this year, Humphries said, the stakes are too high.

"Your vote can't always fix everything," she said, "but we still need to vote for reproductive freedom."

Abortion is a driving issue for young voters in 2022

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, abortion has become a high-priority issue for many voters across the country this election cycle.

According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of registered voters who rated abortion as a very important election issue between March and August jumped from 43% to 56%. That number has held steady throughout the fall.

While other issues, such as the economy, education and crime, are also driving voters to the polls, young people are especially motivated to vote with abortion rights top of mind.

A CBS/YouGov poll from June found that 68% of young people, ages 18 to 29, disapprove of Roe v. Wade being overturned, and 78% believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That same poll found that two out of five young people — about 41% — were more likely to vote in the midterms because of the Roe reversal, the highest of any age group.

At Ohio State, student advocates both for and against abortion mobilized this semester to engage students for the midterms.

'Make Abortion Illegal Again'

If you want to be seen on Ohio State's campus, go to the Oval.

As thousands of students walk through each day on their way to class and other activities, it's common to see student groups lined up along the Oval's long brick sidewalk, using the space as the university's public square.

On a sunny morning in early October, one of the groups setting up for the day was Students for Life at Ohio State.

Students for Life of America, a national, nonprofit anti-abortion organization, has nearly 1,250 groups on campuses across the country, from middle schools to graduate schools. Since the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the organization has gained traction on even more campuses, including Ohio State, said Matthew Ayers, vice president of the university's chapter.

Ayers, a senior studying computer science engineering, said he first got involved with Students for Life as a freshman. Growing up Catholic, Ayers always considered himself anti-abortion. It wasn't until he got to college that he really felt the need to make a choice: Is abortion something I support or not?

Students for Life of Ohio State waxed and waned in its membership over the years. The COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on membership to the point that the group had only five active members.

That all changed this spring.

In the weeks before the leaked draft of the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe made headlines, Ayers connected with his friend, Rachel Russ, to renew Students for Life's student organization status.

By October, membership had increased tenfold.

"Roe was a big part of that increase. People came looking for us," Ayers said. "A lot of people feel unsafe having these views on campus. It's good to have a place here."

On this day, Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins stood in the shadow of Thompson Library, next to a deep red sign with white lettering in all caps that read, "ABORTION SHOULD BE ILLEGAL: CHANGE MY MIND."

The sign and Hawkins appearance were part of the organization's annual fall tour, said Jamie Scherdin, Ohio regional coordinator for Students for Life of America. This year's theme: "Make Abortion Illegal Again."

Ohio State was the first stop on an eight-school tour this fall. The goal of the event, Scherdin said, is to encourage students to dialogue with Hawkins to try to change her mind about abortion rights, ultimately for students to have their minds changed about abortion.

"We're trying to engage students and trying to take a loving approach," Scherdin said.

The event started out as billed. One student stepped up to talk with Hawkins, who was flanked by hired security and a camera crew. But as classes ended and students pored onto the Oval, the scene shifted.

Several dozen students gathered around and the conversation became more abrasive.

"You're acting like abortion is a magic pill," Hawkins said to one student.

"Literally no one thinks that," another student shouted back.

A few yards away, Amber Decker and Joe Knapp stood by with clipboards. The two, volunteers with the local nonprofit Indivisible Central Ohio, were decked out in neon orange shirts that read, "I Can Help You Register to Vote!" As students walked away from the Students for Life event, many of them walked over to Decker and Knapp.

In the days leading up to Ohio's voter registration deadline, Decker said Indivisible volunteers had registered more than 1,600 Columbus-area college students this election cycle. The vast majority of those registrations were Ohio State students.

One of those students was Adam Kirschenblatt. The freshman studying moving image production asked Decker to help him switch his registration from New York to Ohio after listening to Hawkins.

"I wasn't going to vote," he said, "but I fundamentally disagree with everything she's saying. We're in Ohio, and abortion is basically illegal now. In New York, I know they're not going to change it, so my vote matters here."

Scherdin said that Students for Life can't endorse political candidates because of its status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The group does, however, have a separate 501(c)(4) organization called Students for Life Action, which does allow members to advocate for candidates and public policy.

"Although we don't tell students who to vote for," Scherdin said, "we push students to vote pro-life first and protect life at conception."

'Free abortions on demand!'

Two days later, in the same spot on the Oval, a much different crowd gathered for its own rally.

Members of PPGEN joined the Central Ohio Revolutionary Socialists, the Graduate Student Action Network and more than a dozen other Ohio State students for National Day of Student Action. One student shouted into a megaphone, "Free abortions on demand! Free abortions on demand!"

Many students carried signs endorsing Ohio gubernatorial candidate Nan Whaley and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, who is running for U.S. Senate.

Knapp, one of the volunteers registering students to vote, said most of the people he tried talking to said they were already registered. So instead of voter registration info, he passed out abortion-rights stickers.

McKinley Roza walked around the crowd passing out handmade badges with phrases like "Abortion is healthcare" and "Their body, their choice."

Roza, a freshman studying linguistics and anthropology, loves voting. She turned 18 a couple of months before August's special primary and signed up to be a poll worker as soon as she could.

"Everyone should have an opinion, and your opinion should be heard," Roza said.

It's one of the reasons she joined PPGEN during her first week on campus.

Roza remembered pulling into a parking lot this summer and weeping in her car after finding out that Roe had been overturned. Knowing how many people would suffer as a result was just too much, she said.

"People are stuck in horrible situations because of this," Roza said.

Even though she saw the moment coming, Humphries said she still wasn't emotionally prepared hearing the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision. But grief and tears galvanized Humphries and PPGEN's leadership to get organized for this year.

"We weren't going to lay down," she said.

Humphries said while she isn't in a position to tell anyone for whom to vote (although she's happy to share she's voting for Nan Whaley for governor and Jennifer Bruner for the Ohio Supreme Court), this year is an opportunity to engage students who see what's going on around them and want to do something about it. Whether its chalking abortion-positive messages on the Oval or getting trained to register people to vote, Humphries said students are motivated.

"Here we have a real chance to protect reproductive rights in Ohio," she said.

Will young people actually turn out to vote?

Even with all of the registering and educating young voters this fall, the question remains: Will young people actually show up to vote?

Although two in five young people who say they're motivated to vote this November because of the Roe reversal, 21% of young people said the decision made them less likely to vote, according to a report from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement — a nonpartisan, independent research organization based at Tufts University that studies on youth civic engagement in the United States.

Ruby Belle Booth, an elections coordinator with CIRCLE, said the data suggests that young voters may be disappointed by their elected officials and institutions. But Booth said discouragement in young people doesn't usually convert to apathy — it converts to action.

"Sometimes cynicism can be a sign that they're informed, not because they feel powerless," she said.

So will young people use their power to vote? Booth said we'll see after the midterms on Wednesday.

Students grab abortion information after a meeting Oct. 17 by Planned Parenthood Generation Action OSU.
Students grab abortion information after a meeting Oct. 17 by Planned Parenthood Generation Action OSU.

shendrix@dispatch.com

@sheridan120

Sheridan Hendrix is a higher education reporter for The Columbus Dispatch. Sign up for her Mobile Newsroom newsletter here and Extra Credit, her education newsletter, here.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Abortion motivates Ohio State students in 2022 midterm election