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How California could become a refuge for reproductive rights

By Jaya Padmanabhan

The reproductive-rights landscape is a farrago of opinions split across cultural, political and religious beliefs. At the center of it all is the definition of the word "life." Arguments around the termination of a pregnancy range from whether it's a woman's right to choose, the state's decision, or somewhere in between.

Across the globe, countries are listening to their citizens and decriminalizing abortion. Last month, Columbia's Constitutional Court ruled that abortion was no longer a crime. This was on the heels of South Korea, Mexico and Thailand last year and Argentina in 2020.

But in the U.S., women's rights and bodily autonomy are in jeopardy.

Last Dec. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that could overturn the historic 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which prohibits states from banning abortion, initially at 28 weeks and currently at 22 weeks. The Court is expected to arrive at a decision by June.

"If Roe is overturned, it is projected that 5 million black people, 5.7 million Latinos, 1.1 million Asians and 330,000 Native American people will lose access to reproductive health care, among 36 million women of reproductive age," said Lisa Matsubara, general counsel for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California.

According to Guttmacher Institute, a research organization supporting abortion rights, one in four U.S. women have an abortion, 75% of whom are lower-income. Most people getting abortions are in their 20s (60%) and already have one child. Interestingly, 54% of women who have abortions identify with the Catholic faith.

It is worth noting that despite being Catholic and conservative, Mexico, Argentina and Columbia have shown what the power of a liberal grassroots movement can achieve.

Recently, the Women's Health Protection Plan (WHPA), an abortion-rights proposal sponsored by 46 Democrats and 2 Independents, failed to gather enough votes in the Senate. However, there is hope that it has given the Democrats some political leverage. But, as Katie Woodruff, a public health social scientist at the University of California, San Francisco, said on The Takeaway, "This is a fundamentally personal decision that a pregnant person makes to the best of her ability in her own unique circumstances. Everything about the way we cover this as a political issue just obscures that reality." 

California Steps Up

Should the Supreme Court rule in favor of abortion restrictions, 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortions, many via “trigger laws” that go into effect immediately upon such a decision. Overnight, women in these states will no longer have access to abortion centers. If such a scenario came to pass, between 46,000 to 1.4 million people will look for abortion providers in California, a nearly 3,000% increase from today, according to Guttmacher data.

California has begun to feel the impact of this upheaval.

In 2020, Planned Parenthood health centers in California served at least 7,000 out-of-state patients for reproductive health care, including abortions, said Jodi Hicks, CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. This will have a cascading effect for Californians, since wait times for abortions will significantly increase for a time-sensitive health care procedure.

Agreeing with Hicks, Jessica Pinckney, the executive director of Access Reproductive Justice in Oakland, an advocacy organization funding abortion and healthcare, said that in 2021 they responded to callers from 18 states and one other country. 

"That number will only increase as abortion access erodes across the country," she added.

Hurdles to Cross

Hicks related the case of a patient who was fearful of airports during the pandemic and took an Uber from Texas to California to receive care. Another patient brought a child along and needed help with childcare. 

"You're talking about young people, some of them [who] have never traveled outside of the state they live in, ever," she said, adding that they find it challenging trying to navigate how to get care in a different state with no support system.

Because of the barriers that exist to access abortion care in states like Texas, many vulnerable people, mainly from historically marginalized communities, are unable to get an abortion, "affecting their opportunities, their health and the trajectories of their futures," Matsubara said.

A Turnaway study performed by the University of California, San Francisco, found that women who were forced to continue their pregnancy experienced an increase in poverty for at least four years compared to those who received an abortion. Women who were denied an abortion and gave birth also reported more life-threatening complications, like eclampsia and post-partum hemorrhage, and chronic conditions like headaches and gestational hypertension.

Taking the Abortion Pulse of the Nation

In 1979, a Gallup poll found that 80 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or some circumstances. That statistic has consistently hovered around that data point ever since. A similar survey by Pew Research last May indicated that most American adults (59%) believe reproductive choice should be legal. Only 13% want abortion to be illegal in all cases.

Yet Roe protections are continually eroded in the U.S. 

Conservative state legislatures have introduced 180 bills against abortion in 2022, and in 2021, 108 abortion restrictions were passed in 19 states. One of the most restrictive is S.B. 8, enacted by Texas in the summer of 2021, which bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected—effectively, a six-week ban. 

"What makes this law unique is that it is not enforced by any state actors,” Planned Parenthood’s Matsubara said “Rather, any person in the whole country is invited to bring a suit in a Texas state court against anyone who provides abortion in violation of the ban or anyone who helps somebody obtain an abortion in violation of the ban.” 

Furthermore, since the person who sues is entitled to a bounty of $10,000, it pits neighbor against neighbor, Hicks said. In another ominous move, Oklahoma’s Senate Bill 1167, introduced by senator George Burns, would allegedly create a database of pregnant women.

These political tactics criminalize vulnerable women, reduce their agency, and, importantly, do not reflect the nation's mood. In the days ahead, with abortion bans poised to become a reality, California must plan to shore up its resources and establish legal and financial protections in order to, in Governor Newson’s words, “be a sanctuary” for women across the nation.

Jaya Padmanabhan is a journalist, author and director of programs at Ethnic Media Services. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. 

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