Anyone who’s taken a U.S. history class can tell you how integral Roe v. Wade was in setting the tone of the modern abortion debate.
Yet, despite the fact Roe v. Wade determined abortion is a constitutional right, abortion rights are still being restricted at the state level to varying, increasingly polarized degrees.
Senate Bill 24, which would require that student health care clinics at all 34 California public colleges and universities offer abortion by medication techniques, is currently taking its turns through the California legislative process to become a law, and marks California’s ongoing efforts to widen abortion accessibility throughout the state.
The state of Alabama recently passed the country’s most restrictive abortion policy, which outlawed abortion at every stage of pregnancy, with the exception of cases where the life of the mother is in extreme peril. On the other end of the spectrum, the state of California has historically held looser abortion restrictions.
Paula Tavrow, associate adjunct professor of community health sciences and director of the Bixby Program in Population and Reproductive Health at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said it is important to recognize that California has always been a leader in the nation in terms of thinking about how to improve abortion access.
Before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, California passed the Therapeutic Abortion Act in 1967 and became the first state in the country to formally legalize abortion – but under strict regulations that required a hospital committee first determine the pregnancy would severely harm the woman’s mental or physical health.
“Despite the restrictions that came with this act, we think of it as a large step forward, especially in the context of a time during which the rest of the country still deemed it illegal,” Tavrow said.
Years after the Roe v. Wade decision – in 2002 – California proceeded to pass the Reproductive Privacy Act, which permitted any authorized health care provider to provide medical abortion, establishing the first state law to affirm the right of nonphysicians to provide abortion care.
Tavrow said this act was one of several protections California put in place to make sure Californians would still have access to safe abortion care even if the Supreme Court ever decided to overturn Roe v. Wade.
While California has not faced the same number of abortion restrictions as its southern and Midwestern counterparts, it is still fighting for statewide abortion access – particularly on university campuses.
Medical abortions are covered by the UC Student Health Insurance Plan, but are not actually administered at any University of California or California State University campus.
This reality places additional barriers for female students to receive an abortion, forcing them to go off campus and see an outside provider. The commute time for the procedure and follow-up appointments can take time away from class, internships and other commitments on campus.
Taking these impediments into consideration, California State Sen. Connie Leyva introduced Senate Bill 320 in February 2017, which required that on and after Jan. 1, 2022, each California public university student health center that receives state funding must offer abortion by medication.
While the bill passed through both houses of the state Legislature, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Senate Bill 320 in September, stating that the 5-7 mile average distance to abortion providers in campus communities, was “not an unreasonable distance.”
The veto by the self-proclaimed pro-choice governor came as a shock to many Californians. However, it is evident the veto was a pragmatic stance rather than a moral one: Implementing Senate Bill 320 would have been no small feat, either fiscally or operationally.
According to a report from the state Assembly Higher Education Committee, implementation of this bill was contingent upon a total of at least $9.6 million in private funds.
In addition to the funding, each health center had to have been made “medication abortion ready” by purchasing equipment, making facility improvements, establishing clinical protocols, creating patient educational materials and training staff.
“Because the services required by this bill are widely available off-campus, this bill is not necessary,” Brown wrote in his veto message.
Every month, around 500 students at the 34 UC and CSU campuses seek medication abortions at off-site health care facilities.
More than half of the students are low-income and do not have cars. Some students must travel up to four hours to receive abortion care.
Senate Bill 24, also known as the “College Student Right to Access Act,” comprises similar provisions to its predecessor, Senate Bill 320.
Senate Bill 24 delineates that, starting in January 2023, student health centers on all UC and CSU campuses would offer medication abortions to students up to 10 weeks into pregnancy.
The measure also allocates $200,000 in grant money to each of California’s public university student health centers, to cover anything the facility thinks it needs to be ready to provide medication abortion. These costs may include faculty training, equipment purchases, and facility and security upgrades.
Senate Bill 24 marks a second attempt to provide medication abortion to students at California public universities. This time, current California Gov. Gavin Newsom has indicated he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
The bill has so far been approved by the Senate Education and Health committees, and was recently placed in the suspense file at its hearing Monday. Any bill with a fiscal effect in any fiscal year of $150,000 or more will, by a majority vote, be moved to the suspense file. A follow-up hearing will occur in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
“Once the bill is implemented and becomes another service that the health center is able to offer, it will change the approach to women’s health services and hopefully also help to destigmatize abortion,” Tavrow said.