At a time when other states are moving to restrict abortion services, California Democrats have pushed through two new laws that will permit nonphysicians such as midwives to perform abortion procedures in the first 12 weeks and will loosen building standards for abortion clinics.
The laws, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, late last week, have sparked sharp reactions on both sides of the divide over abortion policy.
Proponents say the laws are needed to boost access to abortion to women in areas of the state with few or no clinics, but opponents counter that the laws are likely to boost the number of abortions in California, which already has the fifth-highest abortion rate among states.
What is not in dispute is that California has bucked the national trend of enacting laws restricting abortion: One of its new laws actually repeals building standards that were set for abortion clinics.
"Early abortion access is a critical public health issue," said Democratic state Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, lead sponsor of AB 154, which will permit trained midwives, nurse practitioners and physician assistants to perform first-trimester "aspiration" abortions. Aspiration abortions refer to procedures in which the fetus is suctioned out of the womb.
With more qualified providers available to do early abortions, women in underserved areas should be able to get early abortions without traveling "excessively long distances," Ms. Atkins said.
Moreover, if more women can get early, less-expensive abortions more readily, there should be fewer costly, second-trimester abortions, a legislative analysis said.
Physicians and surgeons will still be required to perform abortions after the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy.
Dozens of groups, representing midwives, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and reproductive-justice advocates, strongly backed the law.
A six-year study from the University of California San Francisco "showed that specially trained health professionals can provide high-quality early abortion care," said Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California Action Funds.
Planned Parenthood also cheered enactment of AB 980, which repeals outdated and "out-of-sync" facility requirements for clinics that perform abortions. Now all "primary care clinics" will be "held to the same standards," it said.
These measures "support the health and well-being of women in California," Mr. Brown said Oct. 9, when he signed these and five other bills related to women's health.
Pro-life groups, however, said that California was bucking a national trend at the state level, where some 43 other states have been setting what they say are "common-sense" restrictions on abortions every year.
"Reducing the medical standards for abortion, both in the personnel and the sanitary conditions required, defies logic for those who say they care about women," said Anissa Smith, spokeswoman for the California Pro-Life Council.
Efforts will be made to limit the midwife law as its regulations are being written, and there is talk of legal action to stop it before it goes into effect Jan. 1, Brian Johnston, executive director of California Pro-Life Council, recently told Craig Roberts on KFAX-AM radio in San Francisco.
But as it stands, under the two laws, "abortion is going to really spread in California," Mr. Johnston said.
The clinic law will affect issues such as the width of entrances and hallways, and size of treatment rooms, noted Ron Prentice, executive director of the California Family Council. Both laws threaten to minimize the seriousness of the abortion procedure, and "place women at greater surgical risk," he said.
With 522 abortion providers, California has one of the highest abortion rates in the nation, with 27.6 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44 in 2008, the Guttmacher Institute said. Only four states — Delaware, New York, New Jersey and Maryland — and the District have higher abortion rates.
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