Sheila Kuehl

SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)–In a move to ensure that California women continue to have access to abortion services even if federal laws legalizing the practice are overturned, legislators have introduced a bill updating the state’s abortion laws while expanding access to non-surgical abortion methods like Mifepristone, also known as RU-486 or the abortion pill.

Though there are no cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that could overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, it is likely that an abortion case would come before the high court if President George W. Bush were to appoint even one more conservative member.

If the court were to overturn Roe v. Wade, decisions about abortion would revert to the states until Congress enacted a law on legalizing the procedure, and 15 states and the District of Columbia have laws banning abortion that would be subject to revival, according to the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

California is the only state where lawmakers are seeking to update their abortion laws. The proposed Reproductive Privacy Act would maintain women’s right to abortion in the state by guaranteeing the right to privacy around reproductive-health decisions, including abortion under all circumstances.

The California bill has strong bipartisan support in a state legislature where the majority of representatives are pro-choice, and Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, up for re-election against pro-life Republican candidate Bill Simon, has said he will sign it.

“California has some of the worst laws on abortion in the country,” says Dorka Keehn, West Coast director for Voters for Choice. “Most people would be shocked by what would happen here if there were a turnaround of Roe.”

No Need To Update Old Laws–Until Now

Right now, the prevailing abortion law in California is the Therapeutic Abortion Act, signed in 1967 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. The law legalized abortion in the state under limited conditions only: It requires the procedure to take place in a hospital, within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, and only in cases of rape, incest, or if the life or mental health of the mother is at risk.

But the law is not enforced, since the federal rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade trump state laws. Through a series of court decisions, some parts of the Therapeutic Abortion Act have been declared unconstitutional. The Reproductive Privacy Act would remove it from the books altogether.

The California ProLife Council, the largest anti-abortion organization in the state, opposes the proposed bill and supports a total ban on abortion. The council also believes that the legislation would increase the number of so-called “late-term abortions,” since it would allow for abortions past 20 weeks of pregnancy. “Late-term abortion” generally refers to abortions performed after 24 weeks, which account for less than 1 percent of all abortions.

Until recently, many pro-choice supporters didn’t see a pressing need to update state law because Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in all states. But Democratic State Sen. Sheila Kuehl of Los Angeles, who introduced the bill, says that times are changing: Thirty states have anti-choice governors or legislatures that could result in stricter abortion laws.

“Concern is growing over the Supreme Court, and it’s just best to have a state law covering a woman’s right to privacy with respect to abortion,” Kuehl says.

The makeup of the Supreme Court, with a one-vote margin in support of Roe v. Wade, is likely to change in the next several years. Three justices are over the age of 70. One of Roe v. Wade’s staunchest supporters, Justice John Paul Stevens, is the most senior, and will celebrate his 82nd birthday this month.

Since taking office, Bush has made decisions that reflect his opposition to abortion, suggesting that his picks to the high court are most likely to reflect that point of view. He reinstated the “global gag rule,” which bars U.S. funding to international organizations that use their own money to provide abortions, inform their patients about abortion or lobby to change their nation’s abortion laws. More recently, he proposed expanding children’s health insurance to cover embryos–which many see as a back-door attempt to declare a fetus to be a person. And he nominated U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering, a supporter of a constitutional ban on abortion, as judge to the U.S. Court of Appeals, 5th Circuit. The Senate voted against Pickering’s nomination last month.

New Law Would Also Ease Mifepristone Restrictions

The bill would also allow registered nurses and other mid-level practitioners to dispense Mifepristone under a doctor’s supervision. The drug is intended to be used only during early pregnancy and essentially causes a miscarriage by blocking the action of progesterone, a hormone needed to sustain pregnancy. Two days after taking Mifepristone, the woman takes another medication called Misoprostal, which makes the uterus contract and helps expel the embryo. The procedure usually requires several visits to a physician.

With many doctors overwhelmed by managed care, supporters of the bill say that nurse practitioners and physician assistants need to be able to hand a pill to a woman. Today, state law allows only physicians to dispense Mifepristone.

“It helps provide the quality of care for women in rural areas and even in urban areas where many doctors won’t do abortions,” says Kathy Kneer, president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. “The practice of medicine related to abortion should not be singled out from every other medical procedure.”

Opponents of the bill say allowing non-physicians to dispense Mifepristone would diminish the quality of care for women.

“We already have a problem with the quality of the physicians performing abortions and this legislation would add to the problem,” says Jan Carroll, legislative analyst for the California ProLife Council. “It opens the field for a lot of under-qualified people to give abortions; women deserve better.”

California Assemblyman Jay LaSuer, a leading Republican legislator from San Diego, agrees. “He feels strongly that this bill would open the doors to abortions being done by non-physicians,” says Laurie Paredes, the assemblyman’s legislative director. LaSuer recently introduced legislation to create “Choose Life” license plates whose proceeds would go to groups counseling women who elect to permit others to adopt their infants. He also introduced a bill requiring a woman to undergo an ultrasound 24 hours prior to getting abortion.

Tracey St. Julien, executive director of the California district of The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which supports the Reproductive Privacy Act, says that the key phrase in the bill is that nurses would work “within their existing scope of practice.” This means that all surgical and non-surgical abortions would still occur under the supervision of a physician.

“Opposition groups want to find something that might make it sound like we’re allowing dog catchers to perform abortions, but that’s not true,” St. Julien says.

Rebecca Vesely is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

For more information:

Voters for Choice:

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists:

California ProLife Council: