To see the growing gulf over abortion between California and other states, look no further than the Colorado River that marks the state’s border with Arizona.
On the California side, a bill heading soon to Democratic Governor Jerry Brown would make it easier for rural women to terminate pregnancies by allowing nurse practitioners and midwives to perform abortions in the first 12 weeks, now provided only by doctors.
Across the river in Arizona, Republican Governor Jan Brewer effectively banned nurse practitioners from doing the procedures in 2011. Five Planned Parenthood clinics stopped offering abortions when doctors couldn’t be found, according to Cynde Cerf, a spokeswoman.
California “completely bucks the trend that we’ve been seeing in other states in the past three years, which is to adopt abortion restrictions en masse,” said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, which researches and compiles reproductive health data. “This is moving in a completely different direction than what we are seeing in other states.”
The California measure, approved this week by the Democrat-controlled state Senate, contrasts with at least 178 laws restricting abortion that other states have passed since 2010, according to the institute. The laws have made it more difficult for women to get abortions, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy.
If signed into law by Brown, California would be the fifth state to permit non-physician abortions, joining Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon and Vermont, according to a study by the University of California, San Francisco. Thirty-nine states require a licensed physician.
The author of the California bill, Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, said the legislation was needed to help women in the half of the state’s counties without a doctor to perform abortions. The Senate version of the bill will go back to the Assembly to reconcile amendments before it’s sent to Brown.
Arizona’s law signed by Brewer two years ago prohibited the state nursing board from determining whether abortion care was within the scope of practice for nurse practitioners.
The effect was immediate. There are seven abortion clinics in the state today, down from 19 in 2010 because of the measure and other restrictive laws, according to NARAL Pro-Choice Arizona, which opposes the limits.
Eighty-seven percent of U.S. counties have no local facilities for abortion, according to the University of California study. Those areas are home to more than a third of women aged 15 to 44, the study showed.
A similar California bill failed last year after some Democrats said they were concerned that abortions performed by non-physicians wouldn’t be as safe. That measure was amended to allow nurse practitioners and other clinicians to dispense abortion-inducing drugs, and was signed Brown.
Many of the anti-abortion laws passed in recent years have been argued on the basis that they improve health and safety. They have also proven effective at shuttering providers: In addition to Arizona, restrictions have been blamed for closing at least a dozen clinics in states including Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
A University of California study published in January in the American Journal of Public Health found that complications from abortions by nurse practitioners, nurse midwives or physician’s assistants were “clinically equivalent” to those performed by doctors.
“I can’t think of a single national trend that California isn’t bucking,” said Brian Johnston, the Western Regional Director at the National Right to Life Committee. “The reality is that a human life must end for this to be an abortion and so this is an issue of huge significance, and other states recognize that.”