Calif. aims to put right to abortion in state constitution

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Gavin Newsom

FILE – California Gov. Gavin Newsom delivers his annual State of the State address in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, March 8, 2022. On Tuesday, March 22, 2022, Newsom signed a law that will make abortions cheaper for people on private insurance plans. The new law bans private insurers from charging things like co-pays and deductibles for abortion services starting Jan. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Already home to some of the most expansive abortion protections in the country, California lawmakers are vowing to go further by becoming one of the first to guarantee a right to an abortion in a state constitution.

California already uses taxpayer money to pay for some abortions through its Medicaid program. And it requires private insurance companies to cover abortions while stopping them from charging co-pays or deductibles for the procedure.

Those protections won’t go away anytime soon as Democrats are in firm control of the governor’s office and the state Legislature. But nationally, federal abortion protections could soon vanish. A leaked draft of a potential ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, published by Politico, revealed a majority of justices on the court would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that stopped states from banning all abortions.

If that happens, at least 26 states are likely to outlaw abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights advocacy group. While California won’t be one of them, the possibility has prompted Democrats to double down on their pledge to make the state an abortion sanctuary.

The constitutional amendment, which has yet to be introduced in the Legislature, would make it much harder to repeal California’s abortion protections should the political winds change and future lawmakers seek to impose restrictions. Democrats also believe it would shield the state from any adverse state court decisions or federal abortion bans that could happen if Republicans were to take control of Congress after the midterm elections this fall.

“We’ve always had the right to protect our constituents more than the federal government. That is the foundation of the American system,” said Democratic Assembly member Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, an attorney and chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Reproductive Health.

Republicans were mostly quiet about the proposed amendment Tuesday. After Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted that “our daughters, sisters, mothers, and grandmothers will not be silenced,” Republican state Sen. Melissa Melendez replied that Newsom “doesn’t understand that aborting would-be daughters, sisters, mothers and grandmothers silences them before they ever have a chance to speak a word.”

“The amendment itself that is being proposed is largely redundant virtue signaling,” said Jonathan Keller, president and CEO of the California Family Council, an anti-abortion group.

David A. Carrillo, executive director of Berkeley Law’s California Constitution Center, said states “can use their constitutions to increase protections for reproductive liberty.” He said the next battles could come between Congress and the states if the federal government tries to enact a nationwide ban on abortion.

“But it’s hard to see such federal legislation surviving,” he said, given that the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the draft ruling from the court “leave abortion regulation to the states.”

Newsom’s office said its goal is to put the amendment on the ballot this November, though lawmakers will have to act quickly to make that happen. They have to vote on it before the end of June to give state officials enough time to print the ballots.

It takes a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. That shouldn’t be a problem in California’s Legislature. Democrats control so many seats they could muster the necessary votes without relying on Republicans.

The amendment would become law if more than 50% of voters support it in November. About 76% of likely California voters oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, according to an April poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank.

“All people deserve bodily autonomy,” said Nadia Taha, one of about 30 people who rallied in support of abortion rights outside of the federal courthouse in Los Angeles on Tuesday. “Like we say: on demand, for free, without apology. And no government can take away a basic bodily right. This is not over.”

The amendment is just one part of Democrats’ plan to expand abortion access in California. Lawmakers have filed 13 other bills, including one that would clear the way to use taxpayer money to help women from other states come to California to get an abortion.

“I could not be more devastated for the people in other states,” said Jodi Hicks, CEO and president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. “We know one in four people will need abortion services in their reproductive lifetimes. That doesn’t go away because extremist politicians put forth bans.”

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