It’s a sentiment heard and felt not only in the words of Gov. Gavin Newsom, but across California and the nation in the wake of a leaked unpublished Supreme Court opinion in a Mississippi abortion case that could overturn the seminal abortion rights case Roe v. Wade. The case challenging a Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy presents a major risk to the landmark 1973 ruling that enshrined constitutional protections for abortions.
The court’s opinion in Roe v. Wade established that choosing to have an abortion comes down to the issue of Americans’ right to privacy, which they ruled was an element of the liberty guaranteed by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
However, in the last month since the high court’s unpublished decision was leaked to mainstream media outlet Politico, women’s rights advocates and state policymakers have been talking about the ramifications of a Mississippi case known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and its impact on access to abortions in California. It’s the first major abortion rights challenge in front of the new conservative majority on the court with its three newest justices, all conservatives appointed by former president Donald Trump.
“California will not stand idly by as extremists roll back our basic constitutional rights; we’re going to fight like hell, making sure that all women – not just those in California – know that this state continues to recognize and protect their fundamental rights,” Newsom said in a statement following the Supreme Court decision leak. “We’re expanding access to these critical services, welcoming businesses and their employees fleeing anti-abortion states, and reaffirming our commitment to continuing to work closely with the Legislature and reproductive rights stakeholders to further solidify California’s leadership on abortion rights.”
This type of response from California’s top government official leads many female rights advocates to discuss what a boost in protections fro California’s abortion rights could look like and the impact it will have on the state.
For attorneys like Elise Brumbach, associate counsel for the California Women’s Law Center in El Segundo, the shocking news has led to important questions and discussions about the rise in people coming to the state for care if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
“Right now, thankfully, California has stronger reproductive freedom measures in place than in many other states,” Brumbach said. “That doesn’t mean that there isn’t more work to be done, but it does mean that women in California currently face fewer barriers here to obtaining reproductive health care, including safe and legal abortions than in some other states.”
But that could be a double-edged sword for women in California seeking abortions when the entire country views this state as their sanctuary for the procedure.
Prior to the Supreme Court news, a study released by the Guttmacher Institute in 2021 found that the state could see as many as 1.4 million pregnant women coming to the state annually for abortion care if Roe is overturned and 26 states ban access to abortion as anticipated. That translates to a nearly 3000% increase in out-of-state women of reproductive age who would find their next nearest abortion provider now located in California.
“This new data shows how dire the country’s sexual and reproductive health care situation is and how harmful the dangerous policies that restrict access to abortion are to millions of people, said Planned Parenthood CEO Jodi Hicks in reaction to the report last year. “No one should have to navigate a health system far from their home for essential care and that is assuming someone even has the means and ability to travel.”
In light of this now very real potential scenario, Brumbach says California does have to take action to ensure that its reproductive healthcare providers are properly supported and funded, “Particularly in this moment where this demand for central healthcare is foreseeable,” she said. “It is important to take those steps now.”
Among the glaring issues highlighted by women’s rights advocates in light of the Supreme Court decision leak is that despite Roe v. Wade currently being the law of the land, abortion isn’t available to everybody. There are issues with pregnant people having meaningful access to abortion throughout the nation.
“States have passed hundreds of unnecessary abortion restrictions in the past several years,” Brumbach said. “Black, indigenous other people of color, young people LGBTQ plus individuals and low income communities are disproportionately impacted by those restrictions. It’s important to recognize that even in this moment where there is a constitutional right, not everybody has equitable access to making that right meaningful.”
Even within California, where abortion services are likely to remain protected, Brumbach said they can be challenging to access for many — especially in the Central Valley, where care centers are much farther apart.
In California, Newsom has already taken steps toward strengthening California’s stance on abortion rights. In March, Newsom signed SB 245 into law, eliminating out-of-pocket costs for abortion. Though California was already one of only 16 states that required private health insurers to cover abortion, SB 245 aims to ensure that out-of-pocket costs don’t prevent anyone from seeking abortion care.
The Reproductive Privacy Act (signed in 2002) also prohibits the state from denying or interfering with a person’s right to choose or obtain an abortion prior to viability of the fetus, or when the abortion is necessary to protect the life or health of the person. The Act defines “abortion” as a medical treatment intended to induce the termination of a pregnancy except for the purpose of producing a live birth.
California also has the Medi-Cal program, which is administered by the state’s Department of Health Care Services, under which qualified low-income individuals receive health care services through, among other things, managed care plans licensed under the Act that contract with the department.
Despite state law protecting women’s abortion rights, there are still many questions about what individuals can do to help support a future of legal abortion in California. Brumbach says people can protect abortion rights by joining grassroots, nonprofit women’s rights organizations like CWLC, Naral Pro-Choice California, or Her Smart Choice, and by getting more involved in the democratic process.
“That’s going to look a little different depending on the individual,” Brumbach said. “For some people that might mean registering to vote and heading to the polls for the first time. For other people, that might mean supporting organizations in their state, including in California and elsewhere that are doing critical voter protection work. Every person that supports access to reproductive rights, including safe and legal abortion, should make sure that their voices are heard, both at the ballot and in their elected officials’ offices.”
Though the high court’s leaked draft opinion might change in its final ruling, which is expected to come in June or July, Brumbach and other abortion rights advocates are preparing for an earth-shattering change in abortion access.
“It would be better if it did not take a situation like this to have that kind of engagement, but I think that everybody can take steps to engage with the political process in a deeper way maybe than they had before,” Brumbach said.
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