Against a backdrop of intensified campaigns to limit abortions nationally, California is moving to expand access to the procedure.
Legislation carried by San Diego Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, to authorize a range of medical professionals beyond doctors to perform a certain kind of first-trimester abortion cleared its first test Tuesday.
The Assembly Business, Professions and Consumer Protection Committee approved her Assembly Bill 154 on a party-line 8-4 vote after a 90-minute hearing.
San Diego Republicans Brian Jones and Brian Maienschein voted no.
The legislation would permit nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwifes and physician assistants to perform what’s called the aspiration procedure. They would have to undergo specialized training.
Atkins said the legislation is designed to safely provide more access, particularly in rural regions where there are few, if any professionals, licensed to perform the procedure.
“All women deserve access to care in their local communities,” Atkins said. “Even in California, almost half all of our state’s counties do not have accessible care or a provider.”
Abortion opponents contend the legislation, besides going against their fundamental beliefs, would make the procedure too common and potentially put a woman’s health at risk by opening the practice to those who are not fully licensed doctors.
“The termination of a pregnancy is not a minor event,” said Carol Hogan, director of pastoral projects for the California Catholic Conference. “It may well be a life-changing event for the woman. Of course, it’s a life-ending event for the baby.”
Atkins’ measure is being contested 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion.
Just recently, prohibitions against abortions in the earlier stages of pregnancy have been enacted in Arkansas and North Dakota. A flurry of measures have passed or are advancing to prevent abortions from being covered by insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Meanwhile, a federal judge in New York last week ruled that girls and women have the right to emergency birth control without prescriptions and regardless of age. The ruling has rekindled debate over the so-called morning-after pill, RU-486, and sold under the name Plan B One-Step.
California has long affirmed abortion rights, including mandatory insurance coverage and access for minors without parental permission.
Four other states have adopted provisions similar to those California is considering related to aspiration abortions: Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon and Vermont.
Aspiration involves a procedure that basically vacuums the tissue out of the womb.
“The rest of the country is moving toward a more appreciative position of life than abortion,” said Assemblyman Jones, who protested the bill.
He raised concerns over allowing young girls to obtain abortions, but the unborn child does not have any rights to life.
“What’s the difference between that 14-year-old girl and that girl in the womb who is just 14 years younger?” Jones asked.
Answered Atkins: “This is not a minor decision, but it is a legal medical right assured to women.”
The measure is being driven by the results of a pilot program conducted at the University of California San Francisco. The study says complications are rare in abortions performed by advanced medical clinicians instead of doctors.
“The evidence is clear. … When it is performed early, it is safe,” said Tracy Weitz, who oversaw the study.
Critic Val Smith, a communications studies professor at California State University Sacramento who also operates a statistics research firm, disagreed.
“We would expect to see in uncontrolled rural environment, where training injuries are counted as real, that medical complications will undoubtedly more than double,” he contended.
Margaret Crosby, a lawyer representing the American Civil Liberties Union, said the measure would update abortion laws to reflect advances in research apart from the political debate.
“It’s time for California to align its abortion law with the science,” she said.
The legislation goes to the Assembly Health Committee. Gov. Jerry Brown has not taken a position.