.What Would Reversing Roe v. Wade Mean for California?

Almost 50 years after SCOTUS’ landmark decision, California vows to continue to protect women’s freedom to choose

The sign was simple: it was a straightforward drawing of a wire coat hanger in black sharpie. I thought of the wire hangers in my closet, the twisted metal and the curved, sharp end. Below the drawing, the words “We Will Not Go Back” were printed. 

The woman holding the sign was one of the hundreds who showed up at Santa Cruz’s courthouse on May 3, in response to the leaked draft of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.

The sign harkens back to a time when women who sought abortions were relegated to underground offices, alleyways or self-harm. It’s a universal symbol of the lengths women would go to before Roe v. Wade established abortion protections in 1973. A time when women were forced to perform their own abortions, and were dying after inserting hangers inside themselves in attempts to self-abort. 

Almost 50 years later, people across the country are reckoning with a possible return to that time. 

“I’m so angry,” Leslie Conner, the CEO of Santa Cruz Women’s Health Center, shouted to the crowd of protesters who had gathered in front of the County of Santa Cruz’s courthouse. Cheers erupted, people thrust their signs into the air and heads bobbed in agreement. The woman holding the sign with the hanger stood, unwavering, her expression grim. 

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“And I’m not going back,” Conner continued. The crowd echoed the words, people of all genders and ages chanting them like a mantra.

The decision as written—which, notably, could still change before the ruling is expected to be finalized this summer—would effectively restrict the right to an abortion for people in 26 states, and immediately outlaw abortion in 13 states

What would happen in Santa Cruz, and in California more broadly, is quite different.

What Happens Next

“California is a special case. Our protections aren’t threatened,” says Dianna Zamora-Marroquin, the director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood’s local branches. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has been preparing for Roe v. Wade’s potential reversal. Last year, the California Future of Abortion Council launched an effort to counter a federal rollback, with more than a dozen bills pending in the legislature to bolster abortion services. The day that the Supreme Court’s draft decision was leaked, Newsom tweeted that the state will propose an amendment to add abortion protections to the state’s constitution. 

According to Senator John Laird—who represents District 27, which includes Santa Cruz County—the state legislature is moving fast to pass an amendment by the June 30 deadline. The amendment requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber to pass. It will then be put to the voters, who would decide whether to support a person’s right to choose in the November election. If a simple majority of voters approve the amendment, abortion rights would be enshrined in the state’s constitution. 

Newsom, along with other abortion activists, want to go one step further. In December, Newsom revealed a plan for California to serve as a sanctuary state in the case that Roe v. Wade was reversed, and in the past week he has doubled down on his promise. The plan would make California a haven for people across the country who have nowhere in their own state to go for an abortion. 

To help fulfill this promise, Planned Parenthood has also been preparing for the eventual overturn of Roe v. Wade, Zamora-Marroquin says. This means prepping for out-of-state patients by expanding health centers in terms of size and capacity, having more exam rooms and hiring more providers. 

“The coastal health centers that we have have seen an uptick already in people who are going to seek services there,” says Zamora-Marroquin. “So the change that they can expect to see is more patients. But in terms of them being able to access services, it will remain the same.”

Planned Parenthood reports that it has treated at least 80 out-of-state patients per month on average since September. If other states ban the procedure, that number could increase to as many as 1.4 million—an increase of almost 3,000%—according to the Guttmacher Institute. 

“Wealthier women are going to be inconvenienced because they have to go out of state,” says Conner. “It’s the people that don’t have the resources, the ability to leave their state and go somewhere else, the travel expenses, time off from work. And that’s low-income women, that’s minority women. It creates more inequity in our healthcare system.” 

Already, low-income women are likelier to carry the baby to term than travel for abortion services. At the same time, those women are the ones who have the most to gain from access to abortions. Studies across the last few decades have found that abortion legalization increased women’s education, labor force participation, occupation and earnings and that all these effects were particularly large for Black women.

Legislators and health advocates worry about how far the repercussions of reversing Roe extend. Zamora-Marroquin says the reversal could open the door for states to regulate birth control and access to contraception. Sen. Laird fears for the precedent this would set for other landmark civil rights rulings. He is especially concerned for the future of marriage equality: the basis for abortion in Roe v. Wade is a person’s right to privacy, which was also used in the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality.

“There is a link that if they don’t uphold the right to privacy in Roe v. Wade, they may not uphold the right to privacy and marriage equality,” Laird says. 

But for now, his efforts are focused on abortion rights and bringing an amendment to voters for the November ballot. He’s optimistic that California voters will approve such an amendment, given the broad support for Roe v. Wade. Polls show support for abortion and Roe v. Wade across the country, but Laird says there are too many issues (strengthening the economy, for one) to accurately predict what kind of sway reversing Roe v. Wade might have on the midterm elections. 

“It’s a question of, is that the number one thing that they would vote on?” Laird says. “Or are they concerned about the economy? Or health care or other things? And so that’s the one thing that’s the open question whether this is significant enough to truly change people’s votes.”  

Generational Gaps 

Connie Alderete was sitting with her grandchildren, two young girls under the ages of 7, at the May 3 rally in front of the courthouse. Her daughter and son-in-law stood beside them. 

Alderete had been a young teenager when Roe v. Wade passed in 1973. She comes from a big family—she is one of seven children—and even when she was young she always wanted a large family of her own. But her desire to have children never swayed her support of a person’s right to choose. She was outspoken about reproductive rights then, and she’s ready to fight for the right to an abortion—for the second time.

“I have three daughters. I have four granddaughters, and this isn’t the world I want to leave them with,” Alderete says. One of her granddaughters is sitting on her lap as we speak. Her eyes tear up, and she takes a pause before she continues. “In my world, we changed it. And 50 years later, we’re back. It’s heartbreaking.” 

The dichotomy between generations alive before Roe v. Wade and afterward, and how the distinction will play out in the fight for abortion rights, is significant, Zamora-Marroquin says. 

“There are people alive today that have never known a United States without Roe v. Wade being in place,” Zamora-Marroquin says. “The women who remember having to get abortions in an alley or at a friend’s house or in another country. Women who had to fight for it, and now might lose it all within my lifetime. And the women who have always had access to this care, never thought twice about it. And now it could be completely gone.” 

She hopes this contrast will give the fight for abortion rights added leverage and momentum. At the very least, she is already seeing how more people are opening up about abortions and decreasing the stigma around choosing one.

“I think [the leak] has activated people who care about reproductive health care in a very powerful way,” Zamora-Marroquin says. “Abortion is not a dirty word. And your geographic location should not be an indicator of whether you can access health care or not.” 

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