Many people in underserved communities still struggle to find abortion services in the Golden State.
This month, Politico broke the news that the US Supreme Court had decided to overturn the historic abortion rights decision Roe v. Wade, according to an initial draft majority opinion. In response to the leak, Governor Gavin Newsom announced a Reproductive Health Package to expand abortion access and attract businesses from anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ states. Even before the leak, California legislators introduced a dozen bills during this session that support reproductive justice and access to abortion care. These bills would benefit people already living in California, as well as those from other states seeking abortion care. This could make California a “safe haven” for those seeking abortion care, but California still has its issues with accessibility.
“It’s motivating to see people rising up in this moment, and trying to channel their rage and anger into the movement,” says Jessica Pinckney, executive director of Access Reproductive Justice, the only statewide fund operation outside of clinics in California. “But it’s also really frustrating because we’ve been raising this red flag for quite some time, and it’s unfortunate that it took a leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court to get some folks to realize that this moment is coming.”
Access Reproductive Justice operates a healthline in English and Spanish, Monday through Friday. About a third of callers are from outside of California, and in 2021 the organization helped people from 18 other states. Though California is expected to receive people from out of state seeking abortion care, people already in state still face challenges.
Cynthia Gutierrez, a reproductive justice activist, was on a leave of absence from school at UC Santa Cruz when she found out she was pregnant in 2012. She was in an abusive relationship, and did not want to raise a child with her partner at the time. In order to get a medication abortion, Gutierrez drove from Santa Cruz to San Jose, which is an hour by car.
“Santa Cruz is a college town. A lot of students don’t have cars. Thankfully I had a car, because if you don’t have a car, going from Santa Cruz to San Jose can take like two hours, one way, just one county over,” said Gutierrez.
Reproductive justice activist Jessy Rosales faced many challenges when seeking her abortion using student health insurance as a student at the UC Riverside. As a leader for a reproductive justice group on campus, Rosales knew the steps she needed to take for an abortion, but was met with bureaucratic hurdles when it came to using her student health insurance.
Rosales confirmed the pregnancy in fall 2016 at her university’s student health center. However, the facility did not have an ultrasound machine to tell her how far along she was. The student health center referred her to a family planning clinic to terminate the pregnancy. When she reached out for services, she was informed they did not offer abortion services. In fact, the clinic had previously informed the student health center of this. The school continued referring students anyway.
“That conversation is still burnt in my memory. It was just the realization that, ‘damn, I’m not the first student that’s going through this. My student health center has a system that is setting us up to fail here,’” Rosales tells Knock LA.
Next, she tried a second referral with another family planning clinic, who gave her an appointment a month later in November. The facility called shortly before her appointment to tell her that because she was still on her family’s insurance, her father — the main policy holder — would surely see the bill. Despite her advocacy work in promoting condoms and Plan B on campus, Rosales still felt the stigma weigh down on her. Her boyfriend at the time asked her to keep the situation a secret because he was embarrassed. She hadn’t disclosed her sexual activities or pregnancy to her family, much less that she was getting an abortion.
“It was just too much to drop at once,” she says.
Rosales finally called Planned Parenthood sobbing. She was finally able to have an abortion in December, but she was well past the first trimester, through no fault of her own. Under the stress of navigating the confusing referrals that went nowhere, Rosales failed that entire first quarter.
“My body was changing,” she says. “It was such a crazy, wild time to feel that I have no control over my body, my future, my current present, and all the while feeling like everyone’s just trying to tell me ‘No don’t go ahead with this.’”
After the procedure, Rosales said she felt instant relief when she was able to sit in the waiting room knowing she no longer had to worry about getting an appointment, or live in secret.
In 2019, the College Student Right to Access Act (SB24) became law, requiring all public California universities to provide abortion medication on campus. Rosales said that after testifying at the state capital in favor of the bill in 2019, a student also from UC Riverside approached her and shared that a similar situation had occurred in her quest to receive abortion care. California public universities have until January 2023 to comply. Students without medication abortion options on campus are still tasked with going off campus and possibly missing class or work, to seek these services.
In California, Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid healthcare program for low-income people, does cover cost of abortion for Medi-Cal recipients, but there’s still travel, housing, and childcare costs one must consider when planning to take time off for an abortion. Jessica Pinckney of Access Reproductive Justice receives a high volume of calls from Medi-Cal recipients who need help other than paying for the procedure itself, as 40% of California counties have no abortion providers.
“Folks do have to travel what can be a significant distance even within their own state, particularly folks living in the more rural part of the state,” says Pinckney.
Procerdural funding can be used to fund the abortion procedure itself, and practical support includes transportation to get to and from clinic as well as lodging for appointments that require overnight stays. Volunteers can provide rides to callers and, in pre-pandemic times, sometimes even housed callers who had to travel a long distance for an appointment.
Pinckney says the areas of California that are most out of reach for people seeking abortion care are the Central Valley, and Northern California in the areas beyond Sacramento and the Bay Area. Rachael Lorenzo, executive director of Indigenous Women Rising, an abortion fund based in New Mexico open to Indigenous and undocumented people across the United States and Canada, says they have also noticed that when it comes to funding people seeking abortions in California.
“California is so vast that seasonal migrant workers are not able to leave their work to get abortion care,” said Lorenzo, who is Laguna Pueblo and Mescalero Apache. She recalls that one recipient of the fund in California missed appointments because they couldn’t leave town in the Central Valley to get to a clinic on the coast.
Lorenzo has also noticed misinformation causes an uptick in callers.
“It’s very intentional that lawmakers make abortion laws complicated so that only a select few can understand them. Not to insinuate that working families are incapable, but they’re trying to have their needs met. How are they supposed to take their time to read a document that could be 500 pages long?” they said.
When new policies around abortion are introduced, part of Lorenzo’s work is also doing political education, contacting attorneys to make sure they’re understanding the policy correctly, and sharing the information with their community.
“Roe is already not a reality for so many people. That’s how we’ve been operating, as if Roe doesn’t exist. While we understand how scared people are, there are already systems that exist, networks that exist to help people.”
Pinckney said she is concerned for the communities we don’t hear about enough.
“Undocumented people are not going to be able to travel across state lines. They may not feel safe traveling across state lines or going to a clinic with security or police waiting outside — young people who need parental consent, and the LGBTQ community who need culturally congruent healthcare,” she said.
While the country has been waiting for the president of the United States to even utter the word “abortion” for at least a year (there’s even a tracker), activists are pushing for policies that make abortion accessible for everyone in the state.
“We’re making sure we’re built to weather what comes next. We know there may be a legal risk in the future to do what we do. We have seen firsthand how we cannot count on the government to protect our rights, whether it’s abortion rights or any other right,” Lorenzo told Knock LA.
To support a local abortion fund, visit the website of the National Network of Abortion Funds, which has listings for funds throughout the United States.