Nation awaits on Texas law ruling

With access to abortion at stake across America, California is preparing to become the nation’s abortion provider.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders have asked a group of reproductive health experts to propose policies to bolster the state’s abortion infrastructure and ready it for more patients. Lawmakers plan to begin debating the ideas when they reconvene in January.

Abortion clinics are already girding themselves for a surge in demand.

Janet Jacobson, medical director of Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties, said three or four out-of-state patients visit her clinics each day — about double the number that sought treatment before a near-total ban on abortion took effect in Texas in September.

While the nine clinics can absorb that slow trickle, they expect up to 50 out-of-state patients a week if the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority guts abortion rights nationally, Jacobson said. 

The Texas law banned nearly all abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy and empowered private citizens to sue anyone who performs or “aids and abets” an abortion after that time. The Supreme Court heard arguments in that case on Nov. 1 and is expected to announce a ruling on its constitutionality in June. Nonetheless, Florida and Ohio have announced plans for copycat laws.

Next month the high court will hear another abortion case with even broader implications; Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a 2018 Mississippi law that prohibited abortion after 15 weeks. If the court sides with Mississippi, its decision could overturn existing abortion rights set by the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

Should that happen, reproductive rights experts predict, 26 states will ban the procedure altogether and states with stronger protections for abortion, like California, will draw even more patients. There could be up to a 3,000-percent increase in people who “may drive to California for abortion care” each year, according to Guttmacher Institute data.

In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available from Guttmacher, California — by far the nation’s most populous state — had more abortion providers than any other state, with 419 hospitals, clinics or doctors’ offices performing the procedure. The next highest were New York, with 252, and Florida, with 85. Neighboring Arizona and Nevada each had 11. Of the 862,320 abortions performed in the U.S. that year, 132,680, about 15 percent, were in California.

Planned Parenthood clinics in California say they already serve about 7,000 out-of-state patients a year and are expecting a surge of new ones, especially in travel hubs like the Los Angeles area.

In September, Planned Parenthood and groups such as Black Women for Wellness convened the California Future of Abortion Council with backing from influential Democratic leaders including Newsom, state Senate leader Toni Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.

The council is focused on increasing funding for abortion services, providing logistical and financial help for women who need to travel, increasing the number of health care providers who perform abortions and strengthening legal protections for them.

The most important thing the state should do is fix its shortage of providers, especially those who perform second-trimester abortions, which are more expensive and complicated than first-trimester abortions, said council member Dr. Daniel Grossman, director of the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health program at U.C. San Francisco.

It’s not feasible to place an abortion provider in every corner of the state, Grossman said. Instead, the council should focus on creating “hubs that can provide abortion care for large numbers of people” in easy-to-get-to locations.

California already struggles to provide abortions to all who seek them, especially low-income women covered by Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program. For example, 28 counties — home to 10 percent of Medi-Cal recipients of childbearing age — don’t have facilities that provide abortions to Medi-Cal patients.

A medical abortion, in which pills are used to terminate a pregnancy, costs California patients an average of $306 out-of-pocket, according to an analysis by the California Health Benefits Review Program, but isn’t available after 10 weeks. After that, the only option is a surgical abortion, which costs an average of $887 out-of-pocket in California.

Medi-Cal pays $354.43 for a second-trimester abortion. A 2020 study in the journal Contraception found that states paid between $79 and $626 for a second-trimester abortion in 2017.

One way to target costs is by funding the practical support, like helping to pay for transportation, child care, hotels or time off work, said council member Jessica Pinckney, executive director of Access Reproductive Justice, a fund that helps people pay for abortions.

Pinckney said she’s working with Los Angeles County to set up a public abortion fund to cover some of those costs for anyone seeking an abortion in the county.

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