Researchers predicted that as many as 9,400 people would seek out Los Angeles County for abortion care after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. No such rush has materialized, but the pro-choice consensus among L.A. leaders will establish the city as the nation’s largest safe haven.
In Los Angeles – the biggest blue city in the nation’s biggest blue state – the governing coalition stands for certain things: It is welcoming to immigrants, sympathetic to homeless people, supportive of government spending to address social problems, and committed to civilian oversight of police.
But the most unifying principle of the city’s liberal base may be its support for abortion rights. Not a single elected official in Los Angeles would be caught dead at an anti-abortion rally.
So deep does support for choice extend in Los Angeles that its last Republican mayor, Dick Riordan, supported abortion rights, even though he was both Republican and Catholic. And its most recent mayoral race, between Karen Bass and Rick Caruso, featured Caruso – who had been both a Republican and an independent before registering as a Democrat just in time for the campaign – fending off attacks for modest support for anti-abortion candidates. Even the whiff of backing the anti-abortion movement helped sink him.
So it was no surprise that when the U.S. Supreme Court last year overturned Roe v. Wade and constitutional protections for reproductive rights, Los Angeles leaders not only opposed the decision, known as Dobbs, but also looked for ways to counteract it.
Decrying Dobbs as an alarming reversal of a long-protected right, Los Angeles positioned itself as a safe haven for women from around the country seeking to control their own pregnancies rather than being forced to carry fetuses to term as mandated by the states where they live.
That threat became real as more than a dozen states jumped at the chance to erect restrictions that had been barred under Roe. Los Angeles, meanwhile, moved to prevent city resources from being used to enforce abortion bans imposed elsewhere, demanding that “crisis pregnancy centers,” which try to talk women out of having abortions, be policed for accuracy; and moved to assure women arriving in Los Angeles for abortion the help they might need to access services.
“It is imperative that we put in place mechanisms to protect those coming to our city by ensuring that no city resources are utilized to detain persons procuring, performing, or aiding in abortion care or to cooperate with out-of-state investigations,” two council members said in their motion to codify those protections.
The effect of Los Angeles tacking left while the nation’s highest court tacked right was expected to make the city a magnet for women seeking abortions. A study by UCLA researchers last year predicted that “between 8,000 and 16,100 more people will travel to California each year for abortion care. Of those, we estimate that between 4,700 and 9,400 will come to Los Angeles County.”
So far, that flood has not materialized. The number of abortions performed in California has increased modestly at about 500 per month, but not dramatically. And no great rush from out of state has arrived. In an interview last week, Cathren Cohen, one of the authors of the UCLA study, explained that court battles in some states, notably Arizona, have slowed restrictions that might otherwise have driven more abortion-seeking women to California.
But those battles are complex and ongoing. With Dobbs, the Supreme Court seemed to believe that it was ridding itself of abortion as an issue, but that’s just the latest evidence that the court is out of touch with real-life politics. In fact, Dobbs has merely opened whole new battlegrounds for litigation alongside legislative activity.
One of the latest involves the struggle by anti-abortion forces to limit the availability of the abortion pill, mifepristone. At issue in those cases is not so much the drug itself but rather the role of the Food and Drug Administration in approving it, which it did in 2000, and again 2016 to broaden access.
Earlier this month, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FDA improperly expanded access to mifepristone, which can interrupt a pregnancy in its early weeks.
Mifepristone’s effectiveness and availability makes it a threat to those seeking to end legal abortion in the United States, said Cohen, a staff lawyer with UCLA’s Center for Reproductive Health, Law, and Policy.
“You can’t really ban abortion if you can get access to medication,” she noted.
The 5th Circuit ruling has no immediate effect but places it in conflict with other court decisions on mifepristone and almost certainly will send the matter back to the Supreme Court.
Banning mifepristone may be the primary goal of the anti-abortion movement, but it’s hardly the only one. Having restrictions or outright abortion bans in 13 states so far, many are exploring ways to restrict travel so that women can’t leave those states and get abortions elsewhere. No state has yet adopted such a ban, which would invite constitutional challenges, but Texas and Oklahoma have each passed laws to allow private citizens to sue doctors who perform abortions or people who assist others in obtaining one.
Los Angeles and California are contesting those efforts, not just by opposing them but by protecting women from them. Under Los Angeles’ ordinances, women who receive abortions in the city can protect the confidentiality of the procedures, and local officials will refuse to share information with other jurisdictions attempting to build criminal cases – moves intended to thwart private actions permitted in Texas and Oklahoma.
California has recognized and protected abortion rights for decades, even before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Gov. Ronald Reagan signed legislation in 1967 that recognized the right to an abortion, including in cases that threatened the physical or mental health of the woman seeking the procedure.
Since then, California has remained at the forefront of abortion rights. Voters last year overwhelmingly approved Proposition 1, which amended the California Constitution to expressly guarantee abortion access.
If anything, Los Angeles is even more assertive in its defense of those rights. City Council President Paul Krekorian, one of the many city leaders who endorsed Prop. 1 (the council backed it unanimously) said Los Angeles would not shrink from its work in this area.
California officially lists 44 providers in Los Angeles. That’s more than many states offer.
“The most basic rights of women to control their own bodies and make their own decisions about the most personal matter imaginable is under attack in this country,” he said. “The city of Los Angeles has voted to defend this most basic freedom.”
The work of abortion foes is multipronged and strenuous. Anti-abortion states will continue to experiment with restrictions that further limit access, and push more women to California.
As that happens, Cohen said she was confident that officials here will defend California’s place as a “safe haven.”
That will be especially true in Los Angeles, where the politics of abortion make it a powerful point of consensus.