SAN FRANCISCO -- Californians are voting now through Election Day on whether to approve a state constitutional amendment that would guarantee the right to abortion and contraception, one of several measures on ballots nationwide this November to address reproductive health care following the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Proposition 1 is expected to pass in the heavily Democratic state and was part of a robust legislative package backed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to ensure California remains a haven for people seeking abortion services. Legislators placed the measure to amend the constitution on the Nov. 8 ballot days just after the court ruled in June that states could decide whether to allow abortion.
Polling shows high support for the measure — at least two-thirds of likely voters said yes in two surveys — with minimal financial opposition from the California Republican Party and others who call the proposition expensive, extreme and unnecessary.
But the measure's supporters want to send a resounding message that abortion is legal and accessible in California, and they hope a solid win will inspire other states also to enshrine the right in their constitutions.
“The challenge is we had a very short runway, so it really is about awareness. We know when people are aware that abortion is on the ballot, they’re likely to come out and vote for it,” said Jodi Hicks, president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, which supports the measure.
California joins Michigan and Vermont in asking voters in November to protect the right to abortion. In Kentucky, voters will be asked to amend the state constitution to declare there is not a right to an abortion. A measure in Montana asks voters whether to require medical care and treatment for infants born alive after an attempted abortion.
The amendment in California would declare that the state “shall not deny or interfere with an individual’s reproductive freedom in their most intimate decisions, which includes their fundamental right to choose to have an abortion and their fundamental right to choose or refuse contraceptives.”
Opponents say the measure was put on the ballot to score political points with women and drive voter turnout in favor of Democrats. They also say the measure contains no gestational or viability limits on abortion, meaning a fetus could be aborted late in pregnancy even though it's capable of surviving outside the womb.
California law currently restricts abortion to only before a fetus is viable, which is usually defined as around 24 weeks of pregnancy. Abortions in the third trimester are rare, and in California, permitted only if the mother’s life or heath is at risk.
“Californians don't support late term abortions,” said Catherine Hadro, spokesperson for the No on Prop. 1 campaign.
The measure's supporters say a constitutional amendment enshrining abortion will have no bearing on limits placed on abortions by lawmakers.
“The constitution has always meant to be a broad framework of rights and the Legislature decides the scope of the laws, this won’t change what is in statute right now,” said Hicks of Planned Parenthood affiliates.
A September survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found 69% of likely voters would support the proposition, including 33% of Republicans. An August poll by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 71% of registered voters would vote yes.
Nearly 40% of people who said they would vote yes said that abortion should be legal in most, but not all, cases, said Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California. It's not clear how much opponents' arguments will stick with voters, if at all.
“That’s something people will be asking about between now and Election Day, especially those people who say it should be OK in most cases,” he said.
Before Roe was overturned, the overwhelming majority of abortions in the United States — around 90% — occurred in the first trimester or at 13 weeks or earlier, said Katrina Kimport, associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco. An estimated 1% of abortions occurred at 21 weeks or later, she said.
Women who have abortions in the third trimester generally fall into one of two categories, she said. They've either learned new information, such as a serious health issue with the fetus that could not be ascertained in earlier trimesters, or they faced insurmountable obstacles preventing them from getting an abortion earlier.
The U.S. Supreme Court's June decision in Dobbs may actually increase the number of women seeking third-trimester abortions, she said.
California's abortion ballot measure and new state legislation protecting abortion are all “helpful but not sufficient,” said Donna Crane, political science lecturer at San José State University and Menlo College.
That's because Congress can always pass a federal ban and the conservative U.S. Supreme Court is likely to take up new conflicts that could result in more limitations, said Crane, who served nearly two decades as strategist and lobbyist with NARAL Pro-Choice America in Washington, D.C. and supports Prop. 1.
“California can pass law after law after law,” she said, “and the federal law will always trump us.”