Revolution #67, October 29, 2006


Abortion in California:
“What Is A Right If You Can’t Access It?”

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…to understand why the battle over abortion is so crucial

Just because abortion is legal in California doesn’t mean you can actually get one. A recent article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, “The Other Abortion Battle” by Tali Woodward, reveals the difficulty that women have in California in getting an abortion.

One woman the Bay Guardian talked to was Iris Flores, a 24-year-old human resources manager who lives in California’s Central Valley. When Iris found out she was pregnant in January, she looked forward to giving birth. However two months into the pregnancy her doctor discovered a problem with her amniotic sac which meant she could miscarry at any time. She had to visit her doctor weekly for a battery of tests. Flores was told she would have to stay in bed to prevent a miscarriage, but that the fetus still might not survive or might have serious problems.

Iris decided to have an abortion, but soon ran up against major difficulties. First, her health insurance didn’t cover abortion unless her life was in danger, which it wasn’t. Then she began contacting abortion providers near her home in Fresno, but couldn’t find a single clinic that was willing to see her, because she had had a cesarean in a previous pregnancy, and because her pregnancy was entering the second trimester. According to the Bay Guardian, 12 weeks (the beginning of the second trimester) has become the de facto cut-off point for many providers, even though Roe v. Wade allows abortion through 24 weeks, after which it allows states to impose restrictions. (California law prohibits abortions after the fetus has become "viable"—capable of surviving outside the womb with medical intervention—but it does not mandate a specific cutoff date).

The difficulties might have been insurmountable had Iris not found the volunteer-based non-profit group ACCESS, which helps women in California access abortion services. ACCESS found a clinic in San Francisco, a four-hour drive from Iris’s home, and Iris was able to scrape together the $1000 to pay for the abortion. But Iris told the Bay Guardian that she finds herself wondering about other women who didn’t have the advantages she had—a supportive partner, a steady income, education, and help from ACCESS.

And all this is happening in California, which was recently ranked the best state in the country for reproductive rights by the National Abortion Rights Action League. California received an A+ rating, while the nation as a whole got a D–.

As Alma Avila Pilchman, ACCESS’s hotline manager for four years, told the Bay Guardian: “What is the ‘right’ if you don’t have the ability to access it?”

Eroding Access

The number of abortion providers has been declining nationwide. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, the foremost clearinghouse for abortion information in the country, found that more than half of the U.S. hospitals that provided abortions in 1982 had stopped by 2000. The institute also documented an 11 percent decrease in the number of abortion providers in the United States between 1996 and 2000. In California the decline was even greater: a 19 percent drop during the same period. Today, 41 percent of California counties lack a single abortion provider.

Options are particularly limited for lower-income women. California is one of only 17 states in the country that provides public funding for poor women seeking abortion. Congress outlawed federal funding for abortion in 1977. In theory, any low-income woman who qualifies for state-subsidized health care can get “emergency” Medi-Cal to pay for an abortion in California. But few places perform second trimester abortions and accept all Medi-Cal patients.

Many clinics used to offer that service but have stopped in part because the actual costs of the procedures are much higher than the reimbursement that the state provides. California reimburses community clinics only $188.08 for performing a first-trimester abortion on a Medi-Cal recipient and $265.88 for a second-trimester surgery.

According to Parker Dockray, the Executive Director of ACCESS, in 1996 there were 10 to 12 places in Northern and Central California where low income women could seek an abortion up to 23 weeks. Today there are only two and one of them sees only a negligible portion of Medi-Cal clients. In Southern California, according to the Bay Guardian, only two clinics will accept Medi-Cal for abortions up to 23 weeks.

And abortion rights continue to be under heavy attack in California—anti-abortion forces have put an initiative on the November ballot that would force young women seeking an abortion to get parental approval.

Bush’s Assault on Abortion Rights

The agenda of the anti-abortion forces has nothing to do with “protecting life”—it is about controlling the lives of women and reinforcing patriarchal social relations. And the steady erosion of access to abortion is the result of a deliberate campaign by anti-abortion forces to pave the way for overturning Roe v. Wade and outlawing abortion completely.

This chipping away at Roe v. Wade has greatly accelerated since George W. Bush took office.

Bush’s first presidential act was to institute a global gag rule that withdrew U.S. family planning assistance from any organization worldwide that offers abortion assistance or promotes abortion access, even if it does so with private funds.

Bush appointed anti-abortion activists to key government positions. For example, he appointed abstinence advocate Alma Golden as deputy assistant of population affairs, which oversees the government’s family planning clinics. When a Texas anti-abortion group argued that clinics needed to turn over the names of any sexually active minors to the state as a potential child abuse victim, Golden authorized two full-scale investigations of clinics in a clear attempt to undermine confidential access to family planning services by teens.

Bush has funneled millions of federal dollars into phony “pregnancy counseling centers”—community outposts of the anti-choice movement which lure women in with the promise of health care and then bombard them with unscientific and hysterical lies about how they will be “killing their baby” if they have an abortion. A training manual for the centers refers to pregnant girls as “potential killers,” and describes the centers as engaged in a fight against Satan.

Bush has appointed right wing anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court and other federal courts, who have upheld more and more abortion restrictions.

In the face of all of this and the fact that an abortion is increasingly difficult to get even in states like California, what has been the response of the Democrats? Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has called defending abortion a “game” the Democrats “can’t afford to play” any longer. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) has called abortion a “tragic choice,” ceding the moral high ground to religious fanatics when, in fact, abortion should require no shame or apologies. As a key part of regaining seats in the Senate, the Democrats are running the vehemently anti-choice Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania.

Such discussion of abortion as a “necessary evil” has meant stigmatizing providers of abortion and the women who get them. And it has meant uniting with the lie that abortion is morally wrong. As the article, “The Morality of the Right to Abortion… And the Immorality of Those Who Oppose It,” (Revolution, March 12, 2006) says:

“There is nothing immoral about terminating an unwanted pregnancy or removing a clump of cells that have not yet developed into a viable human being from a woman’s body. A fetus is not a baby. If a woman doesn’t want to continue a pregnancy all the way (for whatever reason), she should have the freedom to end it, safely and easily. There is nothing tragic about it—indeed, the real tragedy lies in the lives of women that are foreclosed and disfigured and even ended by being compelled to have children that they do not want, a tragedy that happens millions of times a day on this planet, with the connivance and support of the U.S. government.

“The life of a woman who is forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy is endangered. From the dangers of illegal abortions to the disrespect for her own life, she is harmed and demeaned as a human being. Being forced by society to have a baby when a woman either does not want or cannot care for one is one of the age-old tragedies that are no longer necessary for anyone to have to suffer. But if a woman is not allowed to control her own body, her own reproduction, not allowed to decide whether or not or when to become a mother, she has no more freedom than a slave. This is for the greater good for the health and overall well-being of that woman, whose life we should value and cherish more than that of a partially formed fetus. And for the greater good of humanity—for don’t we want a society where all forms of slavery are ended?”

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