California passes broad abortion-rights legislation

With most states hostile to extending rights, the package of bills is remarkable.

On a recent day when the Afghan president barely escaped assassination, war with Iraq seemed to edge ever closer, and a 67-day state budget stalemate finally ended, California Gov. Gray Davis's policy speech to activists here slipped by nearly unnoticed.

Yet it was a historic moment. On that day earlier this month, Governor Davis announced that he had signed what could be the most ambitious package of abortion-rights bills in US history.

They cover a broad array of issues – from ensuring that abortions could continue here even if the landmark Roe v. Wade decision were overturned to the demand that all medical residency programs in the state teach abortion procedures. Some are significant for their symbolism, others for the profound effect they might have on who performs abortions and how.

In a time when abortion-rights advocates find themselves most often on the defensive – in some states parrying hundreds of antiabortion bills each year – the passage of one bill to make abortion easier is rare, say experts. That California enacted four in one day is unprecedented.

Indeed, no one expects any states to follow suit.

Instead, the bills cast California as something of an iconoclast on the topic of abortion, as the nation's most populous state and its governor become conspicuous leaders on one side of perhaps the most divisive issue in American politics.

"I can't think of another set of state legislation enacted since Roe v. Wade [in 1973] that is this dramatically and specifically pro-choice," says David Garrow, a law professor and expert in abortion policy at Emory University in Atlanta. "It is a remarkable package."

Each of the four bills, he and others say, is groundbreaking:

One bill makes California the first state to shield clinics and their employees and patients from harrassment by blocking public access to names and addresses of the clinics themselves and all those associated with them.

Under another bill, California also becomes the first state to require that all medical-residency programs for obstetricians and gynecologists give abortion training, though institutions and individuals can opt out for reasons of religion or conscience.

California legislation is also the first – along with a bill passed this year in the state of Washington – to mandate that emergency-room staff tell victims of sexual abuse about emergency contraception, then give it to them without charge if they askfor it.

It is one of seven states since Roe v. Wade to reaffirm a woman's right to have an abortion, though it is the first to pass a bill on the issue since the early 1990s. The state is well within its rights. Roe v. Wade says only that states cannot prohibit abortions. If it were overturned, states would then be free to do whatever they choose.

In California, the bill updates the 1967 state law that made abortion legal, and it further expands abortion rights, including a first-of-its-kind provision allowing nurses and midwives to prescribe abortion drugs.

That four such bills could make it through the legislature and past the governor's desk with relatively little debate and almost no public outcry, say activists, is astounding.

Although the US Senate recently rejected President Bush's nomination of an antiabortion judicial candidate, activists add, the scene in Washington and in many states generally remains hostile to expanding abortion rights.

"This is significant because it is a affirmative step to protect rights," says Susan Dudley of the National Abortion Foundation in Washington. "[In] many places, what you see is the opposite – abortion rights being chipped away."

A major reason for the difference is Davis. In him, the state with the most liberal views on abortion rights now has a governor deeply committed to improving women's access to abortion.

One of the first states to legalize abortion before Roe v. Wade, California is now governed by a man who warned at his 1999 inauguration address: attempts "to pass bills restricting women's constitutional rights [to abortion] . . . simply will not happen on my watch."

"He is the single most radical proabortion elected official in the US," says Brian Johnston of the Right to Life Foundation.

Governor Davis's success, however, makes many critics more exasperated than defiant.

Abortion opponents mostly have dismissed the new California abortion rights as largely symbolic, with one exception: the provision of the new abortion law that allows nurses to prescribe abortion pills like RU-486.

While the prescription must be under the supervision of a physician, that physician "can be in India," says Jan Carroll of the California ProLife Council.

"The physician only has to be available by phone," she explains.

Nurses have similar rights when dispensing drugs for serious illnesses.

But abortion opponents argue that abortion procedures are not as simple as taking a pill. A physician, they say, is crucial to provide full medical care during the process.

"Women will suffer the consequences," Ms. Carroll says.

Reproductive-rights advocates, not surprisingly, disagree.

They cite studies that suggest roughly half of all pregnancies in America are unintended, and they say California has taken the lead in supporting families' choices in planning their lives.

"It's a model for other states in guaranteeing women's reproductive rights and health," says Kate Michelman president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

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