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California lawmakers seek to bolster the state as an “abortion sanctuary”

Hundreds of demonstrators from two separate groups converged at the California State Capitol Friday, June 24, 2022 to protest the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the decades-old ruling that legalized abortion.
Kris Hooks
Hundreds of demonstrators from two separate groups converged at the California State Capitol Friday, June 24, 2022 to protest the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the decades-old ruling that legalized abortion.

Two bills introduced in the legislature this week would bolster California's status as an abortion haven: one expanding who can provide abortions and the other protecting data privacy of those seeking care.

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) introduced Senate Bill 385, which would permit physician assistants to conduct first trimester surgical abortions without a doctor’s supervision — echoing a law that went into effect earlier this year, which allows nurse practitioners and nurse midwives to do the same.

Introduced by Assembly member Mia Bonta (D-Oakland), the second bill, Assembly Bill 793, would prevent California law enforcement agencies from ordering “reverse warrants” from tech companies, which lead to wide swaths of data being provided on who drove down a particular street, for instance, or searched a particular term. Usage of the warrants to pursue criminal activity has grown over the years, and advocates worry the technology could be used against abortion-seekers or families with transgender children looking for care that aligns with their gender identity.

The authors of these two proposed laws say they’re steps toward cementing the reality of an accessible, private abortion to state residents and those who come from out of state to get the procedure and any related care.

The introduction of the bills comes as debate heats up around the country over mifepristone, used in medication abortions, currently the most common way people terminate an early pregnancy. A Texas judge is expected to rule on a lawsuit filed by abortion opponents who believe the federal Food and Drug Administration should not have approved the pill for distribution in 2000, due to safety risks. The American Medical Association says the pill is safe and effective.

Lowering barriers for physician assistants

Senate President Pro Tem Atkins, a long-time advocate for reproductive freedom, put forward SB 385 on Monday, which builds on legislation she’s authored over the past decade. Atkins drafted the amendment that became Proposition 1 – enshrining the right to an abortion in the state constitution, which was approved with 65% of the vote last November.

“Now it's our job as legislators to make sure that we are broadening real access, real ability to get the procedure, whether it's medication abortion or aspiration abortion,” Atkins said.

At Planned Parenthood’s affiliated Mar Monte clinics, which are located in half the counties in California, demand has quadrupled for abortions, mostly due to an influx of patients from states where access to the procedure is now restricted by state laws, enacted after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federally protected right last June.

SB 385 would lower barriers for physician assistants to be trained in providing first-trimester abortions and allow them without a doctor’s supervision. Atkins says access to the procedure needs to be expanded so people in rural areas don’t have to travel far to get needed health care.

“We have a lack of providers in the healthcare field, in OBGYN, so we want to incentivize training through our university hospitals. We want to make sure that they're actually going to be providers,” Atkins said.

Protecting digital privacy

Meanwhile, a coalition of civil and reproductive rights groups are putting their weight behind AB 793, authored by Oakland’s Bonta.

If passed, this law would prevent California law enforcement agencies from gathering broad data from tech companies using “geofence warrants” or “keyword warrants.” These warrants can net all the people who drove down a particular street or searched for a particular word on a search engine.

“If anybody is looking for specific terms like ‘how to get an abortion in California’ or, ‘drugs that will help you abort a baby’ or ‘top surgery,’ those are the kinds of things that, we're really worried about seeing warrants come out for,” said Hayley Tsukayama, a Senior Legislative Activist with the nonpartisan advocacy organization the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Tsukayama says the bar to get the data is much lower than when police are seeking a standard search warrant, and could be very dangerous for people coming from places where abortion and gender-affirming care are criminalized.

“Instead of asking, can you help us find a needle in this haystack, it's, ‘hey, can you give us that haystack? And we'll see if there's a needle in there that we want to go after,’” she said.

Data shows that police issue thousands of these warrants to Google each year and that this trend is increasing. It is unclear what types of cases law enforcement agencies generally use these warrants for, although court documents provide some clues.

Google has taken its own measures to limit location history retention for people visiting abortion care providers. The company’s press team did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the proposed legislation.

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