In the wake of May’s leaked Supreme Court majority draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that protects the right to abortion, Democratic lawmakers in California have introduced a bill that would enshrine abortion rights in the state's Constitution.
As one of the most progressive states in America, California has long been a hub for safe and legal abortion for both locals and those living in neighboring states. Even so, as abortion rights have come increasingly under attack, many pro-choice legislators, organizations, and activists in the state have felt a growing need to ensure long-term protection.
"We've always felt fortunate in California because in our Constitution is the right to privacy, and we've always understood that to apply to abortion," Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, of San Diego, says. "But the Supreme Court leaked opinion basically tossed that on its head and said the right to privacy doesn't include abortion. So, although, California law … provides meaningful reproductive rights against state interference, that draft opinion from the Supreme Court highlights the need to enshrine the specific right to abortion in our Constitution."
To do that, Atkins, Speaker Anthony Rendon, their legislative colleagues, Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, and National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) California, have partnered to introduce Senate Constitutional Amendment 10, a bill that would give explicit access to abortion and contraceptives in the state.
The bill will go to the California legislature this month, and if it receives a two-thirds majority in both houses, as expected, it will appear on the November ballot, where California voters will decide its fate with a simple majority. "We feel positive that California voters will support this; however, I do think there will be pushback from anti-choice and anti-abortion people who will likely try to misinform people that this means something very different from what it means," Atkins says. "But the practical impact of us putting the word abortion in the constitution really will not change what we do in California."
Instead, the proposed amendment—the first of its kind to explicitly mention abortion— would offer women a sense of relief by assuring them that their rights will not be called into question in the state. "I think if we've learned nothing else from this experience of knowing this Supreme Court decision would come out, it's that we can no longer rest on interpretation and that we really need to be explicit," Jodi Hicks, the CEO and president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, says. "For us, it was not just about doing everything we can to protect and expand these rights for people in California and coming to California who seek care today, but also for generations to come."
Hicks adds that while California's current governor, Gavin Newsom, is pro-choice, as are most legislators, they "don't want to leave anything open to interpretation should that change down the road, at the federal level or within our state legislature."
SCA 10 is just one of a handful of legislative efforts surrounding abortion rights that are currently underway in California. For state lawmakers, the fragile state of abortion rights was apparent long before the Supreme Court opinion was leaked last month, so last September—shortly after Texas's restrictive abortion law, SB8, went into effect—more than 40 reproductive rights organizations, allies, and leaders joined forces to create the California Future of Abortion Council. The organization's job is to identify potential challenges in the state and recommend solutions to ensure continued access to abortion care.
In a report published in December, the coalition made 45 policy recommendations to expand access and has already introduced a package of 13 bills related to reproductive rights this year.
NARAL Pro-Choice California, a pro-choice advocacy organization, is one of the council's eight committee members. "We were able to throw together in quite a short amount of time really impressive and comprehensive efforts to create a blueprint for what California—and really any state like ours—needs to be doing," Shannon Olivieri Hovis, the director of NARAL California, says.
The abortion rights alliance was formed following the recent legislative threats to ban abortion across the United States, but its members know keeping abortion legal is not the only challenge at hand when it comes to reproductive rights. Even with abortion available in California, there is a swath of issues that continue to plague the state's reproductive health care system and the women who rely on it.
A 25-year-old talent manager in Los Angeles, who we'll refer to as Divya Narula (real name omitted to protect her identity), encountered these issues firsthand when she sought an abortion in September 2017. After experiencing nonconsensual sex during her junior year of college, Narula soon discovered she was pregnant and in need of an abortion. "I was the only person I knew who'd gone through this, and I felt awful and didn't even know where I could go to find help," she recalls. "I had heard so many stories about people researching and ending up in fake clinics, and, frankly, if I didn't know about Planned Parenthood, I'm not sure I would have been able to find a provider."
Narula felt lucky to live in L.A., where there are a number of Planned Parenthoods in the area, but after calling every one, she was shocked to find that none had an appointment available for at least five weeks. "It was also crazy to me that some of them were, like, $1,500 for an abortion, while others were $500, and I didn't want to use my insurance because my parents would then know something was going on. So I was paying out of pocket," she says. "I didn't really have money for it at the time and couldn't file for Medicaid, but eventually, I begged one of the cheaper Planned Parenthoods to find me an earlier appointment, and they were able to two days later."
Narula says she was in "horrific pain" and "bled for almost three weeks" after taking the abortion pill, and when she returned to Planned Parenthood for her follow-up appointment, it "was surrounded by protesters."
Nonetheless, she was able to end her unwanted pregnancy in a safe manner, in an accepting state, and—having grown up in Arizona, where abortion has long been under fire—she knows her experience was good compared to that of others.
"Going through with the pregnancy simply wasn't an option for me–the idea of even having to tell my parents was too much to bare, but I was also 20 years old and a junior in college with no income, and I would not have had a supportive partner because I never wanted to see or speak to this person again," she says. "I genuinely felt like I was going to kill myself if I couldn't figure this out, and I couldn't help but think that if this is how I felt in California, it must be 10 times worse in other states."
To address the myriad barriers faced by Narula and millions of other women in California, the Future of Abortion Council has worked with lawmakers to devise a number of solutions. With particular focus on provider shortages, the coalition has proposed Senate Bill 1375, which would remove the requirement for physician supervision around first-trimester abortion care and enable nurse practitioners to provide such abortions without a doctor present. There is also Assembly Bill 1918, which would establish a reproductive health scholarship corps to expand adequate pathways, training opportunities, and clinical opportunities to providers in historically underserved areas. Another, Senate Bill 1142, seeks to address the lack of accurate and reliable information on reproductive health care by creating a "one-stop shop" website with information on where and how to access abortion in California, including details on financial assistance and logistical support. "We hope this site will be a resource not only for Californians to know the places where they can actually find abortion care, but also for folks coming out of state," Olivieri Hovis of NARAL California says.
As a longtime safe haven for countless women coming from other states, where abortion restrictions run rampant and the number of providers diminishes by the day, California already plays a large role in the national abortion landscape and is home to more than 20 percent of the clinics that provide abortion in America. Should Roe be overturned, however, it expects to see an even greater influx of patients—about a 3,000 percent increase—many from out of state.
California's newly proposed legislation, therefore, carries a potential impact well beyond its borders, something that the lawmakers and proponents of these bills do not take lightly. "We've already seen a significant increase in people coming to California, and what we're going to see after the Supreme Court decision, should it come down and be what we expect, will be even more movement," Atkins says. "And we're going to see people who've had the privilege—actually, the right—to take for granted that they could access abortion services if and when they needed them."
Now, she says, having that access will depend entirely upon where you live. "This is bigger than just California, and I do hope that other states will follow our lead," the senator adds. "Lives are going to depend on it."