The Republican Plan to Trick Americans Into Voting Against Abortion

A person uses a paint roller to try to cover the word ABORTION with red paint.
Illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.
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Abortion bans are unpopular. So unpopular that Republican extremists seem to have to invent conspiracy theories to trick Americans into voting for them.

That’s the major takeaway from recent political battles in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. In all three states, abortion-related ballot initiatives and elections were framed by right-wing groups as the only thing standing between parents and “trans ideology” in the classroom.

In Ohio, political ads intoned that malicious entities from out of state were arriving to “encourage sex changes for kids.” In Wisconsin, Republicans distributed a video that claimed a child was “transitioned into a boy by school officials without parental consent.” And in Michigan, millions of dollars went into ads that warned “minors as young as 10 or 11” could be sterilized without “their parents even knowing.”

All would be resolved, the ads assured, if voters just sided with conservatives at the ballot box. But in reality, “parental rights” were not on the ballot in any of these states. Instead, all three votes had enormous implications for access to abortion.

This is the new playbook. Using the specter of child corruption and social contagion, Republicans are attempting to manipulate parents, scapegoat trans and queer people, and erode multiple axes of bodily autonomy, all in one fell swoop. It does not appear to be a particularly effective tactic, as the recent right-wing efforts failed in each of the three states that tried it. But initiatives like Promise to America’s Children, a coalition of far-right groups that has advanced anti-trans legislation in states across the country, are putting money behind these fearmongering tactics. These groups believe that by agitating conservatives and uniting voters against a trans boogeyman, they can get people to ignore their own support for (or indifference to) abortion rights and eagerly line up to give those rights away.

This month, Ohioans went to the polls to vote on a ballot measure, known as Issue 1, that was specifically designed by the Republican Party to bulldoze a proposed amendment to the state constitution that residents will vote on this fall. That proposed amendment, if passed in November, will enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.

Ohio Republicans knew they were at a disadvantage on this issue. Abortion rights are broadly popular in Ohio, as they are in most of the country. In a recent USA TODAY Network/Suffolk University poll of likely Ohio voters, 58 indicated support for the abortion rights amendment while only 32 percent opposed it, with 10 percent undecided. The ranks of the supportive included 85 percent of independent women and a full third of surveyed Republicans.

So conservatives knew they wouldn’t be able to thwart the proposed amendment on the merits of their anti-abortion arguments alone. Instead, they scheduled an emergency vote on a ballot initiative—in the dead of August—that would have made it much easier to defeat the abortion rights amendment on procedural grounds. If Issue 1 had passed this month, it would have required 60 percent of voters to approve any amendment to the state constitution, rather than a simple majority.

It didn’t work. Ohioans streamed to the polls—turnout was 38 percent, higher even than any regular primary election since 2016—and voters rejected Issue 1 by a resounding margin of 14 points.

In the aftermath, state Republicans lamented that they hadn’t enough time to get their message out—despite the fact that they were the ones who tried to rush the vote on Issue 1, and despite the millions of dollars that had gone into trying to make voters fear for their children.

In an ad that circulated before the August vote, funded by a right-wing group called Protect Women Ohio, a parent tucks a young girl into bed. “You promised you’d keep the bad guys away. Protect her,” the voice-over says. “Now’s your chance.” Malicious entities from out of state are arriving in sheep’s clothing to “encourage sex changes for kids” and sneak “trans ideology” into schoolrooms, it continues. “Protect your rights as a parent by voting yes on August 8th.”

What do “sex changes for kids” have to do with a ballot measure about the amendment-making process? Nothing at all. In trying to cloak an unpopular agenda in anti-trans messaging, GOP operatives were hoping to mislead voters and incite them to panic—regardless of the fact that Issue 1 would not have protected “parental rights” at all.

The Ohio special election was not the GOP’s first stab at this switcheroo tactic. In the lead-up to a Wisconsin Supreme Court election held in April, Republicans distributed a video that claimed to tell the story of an “innocent” 12-year-old child who was “transitioned into a boy by school officials without parental consent.” (In fact, the child had not medically transitioned but requested to use a boy’s name and he/him pronouns. After the school respected those wishes, the parents sued.)

The outcome of the election “will determine if parents still have rights,” said the video, which was funded by the American Principles Project, which is part of the coalition of far-right groups pushing anti-trans legislation in multiple states. “Don’t leave your children in the hands of Janet Protasiewicz,” it continued, referring to the liberal candidate on the ballot.

During the campaign, Wisconsin voters got texts from anti-Protasiewicz campaigners, many with links to the American Principles Project ads. Some texts said that the candidate “and her woke allies want to TRANS our children without notifying parents.” Other texts referred to the “trans madness” that would overtake Wisconsin’s children if conservative judicial candidate Daniel Kelly didn’t win the race.

In actuality, the election was widely seen as a referendum on abortion rights: It was set to determine the ideological balance of the state court, which was previously right-leaning, in advance of a case that would either uphold or strike down an 1849 abortion ban that had become newly enforceable in Wisconsin after Roe v. Wade was overturned. With money pouring in from across the country—to support both Protasiewicz and Kelly—this Wisconsin election became the most expensive state Supreme Court race in U.S. history.

Protasiewicz had never weighed in on the case of the 12-year-old mentioned in the attack ad, and her opposition never presented proof of her supposed opinions on health care for trans kids. But Terry Schilling, the president of the American Principles Project, has said that campaigns to ban gender-affirming treatments for trans people are “a political winner.” Trans rights are “enormous issues for swing voters and moderates” and can pull centrists toward conservative candidates, Schilling told the New York Times.

So even in a judicial election with little connection to trans issues, when you’re an anti-trans hammer, the race looks like a nail.

Republicans pulled the same trick last year in Michigan, where a right-wing PAC spent millions of dollars on anti-trans ads aimed at defeating an abortion rights amendment on the ballot in November. The amendment, which ended up passing, affirms that every person has the right to make their own decisions related to pregnancy, including “prenatal care, childbirth, postpartum care, contraception, sterilization, abortion care, miscarriage management, and infertility care.” Conservatives spent the months before the election trying to convince voters that the inclusion of the term “sterilization” was a sneaky admission, by Democrats, that they would be legalizing secret gender-affirming surgeries for children.

One ad that ran in the state focused on puberty blockers, depicting a syringe dripping with fluid. If the abortion rights amendment passed, the voice-over said, “minors as young as 10 or 11 will be able to receive this prescription without the consent of their parents or their parents even knowing.” The implication was that puberty blockers were somehow part of the amendment and that they would be used to sterilize children. (Puberty blockers do not cause “sterilization.”)

“A constitutional right to ‘sterilization’ surely includes a right to be sterilized to align one’s sex and gender identity,” wrote a spokesperson for Citizens to Support MI Women & Children, the PAC that funded the ads, in an email to the Detroit Free Press. “The majority of voters do not support a 12-year-old girl’s right to sterilization without her parent’s notice or consent.”

Legal analysts who responded in the Detroit Free Press said the abortion rights amendment in Michigan was not written to legalize clandestine procedures for children, nor could it be reasonably interpreted as such by a judge. But again, that wasn’t the point. Abortion access, though despised by Republican extremists, is quite popular; the right had no chance of blocking the amendment without inventing a conspiracy theory to go with it.

Conservatives are now promoting this same sort of misleading, disingenuous reading of an abortion-related text in Ohio, where just a simple majority of voters may pass the abortion rights amendment in November.

Protect Women Ohio, the main coalition fighting the amendment, maintains that the language the amendment uses—“every individual has a right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions” without burdensome state interference—will mark the end of the Ohio law requiring a guardian’s consent for a minor’s abortion. In its ads, the group also says the amendment would allow a child to undergo “sex change surgery without her parents’ knowledge or involvement.”

The reproductive rights amendment, a woman says in one Protect Women Ohio ad, is “not just about abortion like they say it is.”

Again, nonpartisan legal analysts have refuted this interpretation. But anti-abortion activists aren’t concerned about the truth of the matter; they’re invested in the long-term maintenance of transphobic anxiety in the electorate as a means to achieve their other political goals. In trans people, they have found the perfect punching bag: members of a tiny minority with little political power who can be made out to represent a fundamental threat to the traditional gender order.

Pursuing an agenda that leans far further right than what constituents want is nothing new for conservative leaders. Due to a combination of aggressive gerrymandering and strong right-wing activism in Ohio, for example, the state has long been a vanguard of anti-abortion policy in spite of its relatively balanced political makeup and broad support for abortion rights. But lately, on abortion, Republicans have been watching their wins come undone by ballot measures and state constitutional amendments—in other words, by mechanisms that put the power back in the hands of voters.

It’s democracy in action. In the wake of the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, every time abortion rights have been put to a popular vote—anywhere in the country—voters have rejected the anti-abortion ballot measures and approved the ones that codify or expand abortion rights. It’s no surprise that GOP operatives are trying to divert the focus to literally any other issue where they perceive themselves to have the upper hand, though it is horrifying to see that they believe virulent transphobia is a winning enough position that it may convince voters to sign away their access to legal abortion. The only silver lining, in Ohio as in Wisconsin as in Michigan, is that the bait-and-switch doesn’t seem to be working.