By the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the fight over abortion shifts from the courthouse to the statehouse. Californians may legitimately ask what, if anything, will change with abortion law in our state.
As an advocate for prenatal care services for women and their unborn children in the San Joaquin Valley, I fear our state will run counter to the national trend by digging into ever-more-extreme positions. In short, California wants to do far more for abortion provision than for prenatal care provision, thereby ignoring serious public health problems, particularly here in the Valley.
The Legislature’s centerpiece response to Roe’s overturning will be SB 1142, a bill to make California a taxpayer-funded “magnet” for women in states that pass restrictions on abortion. This bill provides state funding for travel, lodging, child care and abortion provision for persons who live in states where abortion is legally restricted. It even goes so far as to provide state-funded compensation for lost wages for time a woman takes away from work to get the abortion.
The fact that our Legislature would bend over backward to fund non-Californians flying into the state to get abortions is more extreme when one considers how much the state is failing at providing prenatal care to its own citizens.
According to Fresno State researchers, 87% of women in north Fresno receive prenatal care before they deliver, as compared to only 77-79% of women in south Fresno. Some southwest Fresno neighborhoods can expect as many as 1 in 4 children dying before their first birthday. And 7.3% of all children born in Fresno County have low weight births (under 2,500g), above the statewide average of 6.9%. The infant mortality rate is 6.8 per 1,000 live births, above the statewide average of 4.4 per 1,000.
An enormous percentage of the region’s population is on Medi-Cal, and few providers are willing to take Medi-Cal patients for obstetric care due to poor reimbursement rates. This is perhaps the key problem for prenatal care provision in our region. The problem is so great that Valley Children’s Hospital and St. Agnes Medical Center have identified lack of access to prenatal care as one of the top public health problems in the San Joaquin Valley. Perhaps the governor (who has seemingly forgotten his 2018 campaign promises of universal health care) should focus on basic prenatal care provision for Californians before funding out-of-state abortions.
The second extreme proposal is SCA 10, a potential amendment to the California Constitution. This item requires passage by two-thirds majorities of both houses of the Legislature by the end of June, after which it will be subject to a popular vote via a ballot initiative this November.
The relevant text of the amendment says, “The state shall not deny or interfere with an individual’s reproductive freedom in their most intimate decisions, which includes their fundamental right to choose to have an abortion and their fundamental right to choose or refuse contraceptives.”
The California Supreme Court has already recognized a right to abortion implicit within the California Constitution’s protections for privacy and equal protection. It is therefore unclear what this broad, vague constitutional amendment would do. Does it simply re-affirm existing legal protections for abortion in California, merely serving as a device to drive Democrat turnout in November? Or, as I believe, will this be a vehicle to advance radical abortion policies through the courts that could not pass the ordinary legislative or ballot initiative process?
Under this amendment, I fear that legal protections for hospitals and providers who morally oppose abortion could be in the crosshairs. It does not require much imagination to see a liberal California Supreme Court entertaining arguments from ACLU lawyers that conscience protections are effectively state action “denying or interfering” with an individual’s right to abortion.
In fact, the ACLU, a key partner in Newsom’s California Future of Abortion Council, has been arguing against conscience protections for years. They have already sued Dignity Health, a California-based chain of Catholic hospitals that includes St. Agnes Medical Center, for its refusal to perform reproductive procedures contrary to Catholic teaching. Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel (one of President Biden’s chief health-care advisors) prominently advanced the argument that conscience protections were illegitimate burdens to abortion access in the New England Journal of Medicine just a few years ago.
I hope Californians of good will on both sides of the aisle would take this opportunity to assess the serious health-care challenges in our community. Instead, I fear that Newsom and his allies view the overturning of Roe as a chance to score more political points and advance a radical agenda.
John Gerardi is executive director of Right to Life of Central California, which is based in Fresno.