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LOS ANGELES — In the wake of the Supreme Court’s momentous decision Friday to overturn Roe v. Wade and end nearly 50 years of nationwide abortion protections, Democrats in Washington, D.C., have struggled to show how they would — or could — fight back.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recited a poem. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) turned "inward" with yoga. And the national Democratic Party flooded inboxes with opportunistic fundraising emails.
Meanwhile, Democratic leaders outside the Beltway took actual, concrete action, demanding special legislative sessions to expand abortion access (Illinois) and filing suit to stop a nearly century-old abortion ban from taking effect (Michigan).
But so far, no one is countering the fall of Roe as aggressively as California, America’s most populous — and in many ways, progressive — state.
"California can play an outsized role at this moment," Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday. "I want folks to know, all around the rest of the country, and in many parts of the globe, that I hope we're your antidote to fear or anxiety. Perhaps to the cynicism that many of you are feeling about fate and the future."
Newsom has long touted California as a liberal bulwark, picking frequent fights with Republican peers such as Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas’s Gov. Greg Abbott over crime, COVID-19, LGBTQ rights and critical race theory.
In recent weeks, the Golden State governor, 54, has gone even further, joining former President Donald Trump’s right-wing Twitter alternative, Truth Social, to personally "cal[l] out Republican lies" — a move that led Washington, D.C., types to speculate that he might be “positioning himself for a White House run in 2024” if an aging and politically vulnerable President Biden declines to seek reelection.
"Newsom is young and politically muscular," David Axelrod, a longtime Democratic strategist and political adviser to former President Barack Obama, told the New York Times. "Which may be just what the market will be seeking post-Biden." (Newsom, for his part, has repeatedly denied having his eyes on the presidency, telling Yahoo News earlier this year that Vice President Kamala Harris "is the next in line" should Biden decide not to run.)
Yet the nature and scope of the court’s ruling on Roe represents a rubber-meets-road moment for Newsom and other governors with possible national ambitions. Suddenly, it’s their responsibility to either preserve or prohibit a medical procedure that had been enshrined as a constitutional right for almost half a century — a responsibility that will put them in direct conflict with other governors veering in the opposite direction.
Experts say the brewing clash between blue states and red states over abortion echoes the era of slavery. "We haven’t seen this kind of battle about … the reach of the jurisdiction of one state over another in a very long time," Wendy Parmet, director of Northeastern University’s Center for Health Policy and Law, told the Washington Post. "Nothing of this magnitude have we seen since the Civil War."
So with conflict coming — and with leaders in Washington largely powerless to act — Newsom seems determined to position California, and himself, on the frontlines.
Already, more than half the states in the United States — all of them Republican-controlled — have moved to ban abortion within their own borders, and many are introducing measures that would also seek to limit access across state lines by prohibiting shipment of abortion-inducing pills, prosecuting residents who leave the state to terminate their pregnancy and penalizing out-state-medical professionals for performing the procedure. Together, these efforts could leave an estimated 40 million people without abortion access in their own state.
In response, Newsom and other California Democrats have been laying the groundwork to transform the Golden State into America’s leading abortion "sanctuary" — not just for Californians but for red-state residents as well, with an entire infrastructure to facilitate travel and termination of pregnancy across state lines.
The process started last fall. After Texas passed its own restrictive 15-week ban, Newsom quickly convened the Future of Abortion Council to generate new sanctuary policies; its recommendations, released in December, now form the basis of a sweeping package of more than a dozen bills working their way through the California Legislature.
These efforts include a new amendment to the state Constitution — introduced by Newsom and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, who once ran a women’s health clinic — that would explicitly protect the right to abortion and contraception. The measure passed the state legislature by a wide margin and will appear on the November ballot for voters’ approval. They also include a new law — signed Friday by Newsom — that will nullify civil liability judgments against providers or patients if they’re based on laws in other states.
"We will not aid, we will not abet, in their efforts to be punitive, to fine and create fear for those that seek that support," Newsom said.
And that's only the start. A raft of additional measures could pass before the Legislature leaves Sacramento in August, according to CalMatters. One would prohibit medical providers and health insurers from sharing information in cases that seek to penalize abortion. Another would prevent the state medical board from suspending or revoking the license of a physician who is punished in another state for performing an abortion in accordance with California law. A third would stop police from arresting someone for providing or obtaining an abortion and ban law enforcement agencies from sharing information with colleagues in other states.
At the same time, Newsom has asked for an extra $125 million to help California abortion clinics prepare for a surge in out-of-state patients. Already, 16.5% of all U.S. abortions are administered in California, and a recent UCLA report estimates that an additional 10,600 people — mostly from Arizona and Texas — will travel to California each year for abortion care now that Roe is gone.
To that end, a state budget deal announced Sunday night includes $20 million for clinicians who commit to providing reproductive health care services, along with $21 million for existing workforce programs and $20 million for recruitment and retention at clinics. Other bills would create state-administered funds to help patients who can’t afford an abortion — possibly including travel and lodging — and clinics that provide uncompensated care to patients who lack reproductive coverage.
"To people across the country living in a state hostile to abortion: California is here for you," Jodi Hicks, president of Planned Parenthood affiliates of California, told Politico. "We will not turn people away, and we will find a way to support you so that you can get the care you need."
California is hardly alone in pushing back against the Supreme Court’s decision. In total, about 20 states — largely Democratic-controlled — have promised to preserve or expand abortion access in post-Roe America. But instead of just protecting its own residents’ abortion rights, California is moving the fastest to create a haven for potential patients from nearby anti-abortion states as well — a number that is expected to increase from 46,000 to 1.4 million in the weeks and months ahead.
"California, Oregon and Washington are building the West Coast offense to protect patients' access to reproductive care," Newsom said Friday in a video announcing a joint "commitment to reproductive freedom" with his fellow West Coast governors.
And they will do so, added Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, for "patients from any state who come to our states for abortion care."
Meanwhile, the White House is mostly hamstrung on the issue — as is the U.S. Senate, where the filibuster will prevent a simple majority from codifying abortion rights for the foreseeable future.
In contrast, Newsom — who has made waves in recent weeks by accusing his own party of inaction on major issues — now has a chance to lead.
"Where the hell is my party?" he said at a Los Angeles Planned Parenthood office in May. "[Republicans] are winning. They are. They have been. Let's acknowledge that. We need to stand up. Where's the counteroffensive?"
The answer, Newsom hopes, is California.