In the wake of Friday’s Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that provided a constitutional protection for abortions, scholars from UCLA, policymakers and reproductive health practitioners discussed what the future may hold.
During an online panel convened by the UCLA School of Law’s Center on Reproductive Health, Law and Policy just hours after the decision was announced, participants agreed that the worst was yet to come in terms of reproductive rights but also trumpeted the role California and Los Angeles could play in ensuring that abortions remained accessible to all Americans.
The immediate impact of the court’s decision would be felt across the country, the panelists said, pointing out that 26 states have already limited or ended abortion access or are prepared do so in the coming days and months.
UCLA legal experts kicked off the panel by highlighting the seemingly inconsistent ways in which the current court has operated when it comes to legal precedents and tests, an unpredictable approach that could signal more restrictions and reversals to come, potentially with same-sex marriage or contraception.
For nearly 50 years, Roe v. Wade guaranteed the right of women to choose whether or not to bear a child based on what is known as the “liberty provision” of the 14th Amendment. The court’s reversal of Roe rejected the idea that this right is granted under the provision — and a similar fate could befall other rights that hinge on it, said panelist Cary Franklin, faculty director of the Center on Reproductive Health, Law and Policy.
“This decision did not simply remove the constitutional protection for abortion rights, it adapted a new approach to discerning rights under the liberty provision in general,” she said.
UCLA law professor Jon Michaels pointed out the ways in which other recent Supreme Court rulings — on gun control and vaccine mandates, for instance — point to an erratic application of legal precedents, which, he said, should sound alarm bells.
“Looking at the broader implications of this and other recent decisions, no amount of fear or outrage can be called hyperbolic today,” said Michaels, who agreed that additional core rights of privacy and body autonomy could be imperiled.
The reproductive rights battleground shifts to the states
The Dobbs decision, and the consequent overruling of Roe v. Wade, throws decisions about abortion back to the individual states, and that, Franklin said, is where abortion litigation battles and reproductive rights activism will be centered.
“There will be a lot of creative and important legal work happening in the states,” she said. This might include cases that employ the First Amendment or religious freedom as arguments for legal abortion, or cases that argue that compulsory motherhood violates equality or sexual discrimination laws.
It remains to be seen whether such expected litigation can move the needle on abortion access, Franklin said. But she doesn’t hold out much hope for the success of religious freedom and equality arguments once they reach the federal level, given the confounding ways in which the current court has ruled.
The panel also discussed the potential for enacting state or federal legislation in response to the court’s decision and talked about how supporters of reproductive rights — whether institutions, groups or individuals — could galvanize communities across the country to help provide logistics and support for those seeking abortions in states where the procedure remains legal, safe and accessible.
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and University of California President Michael Drake, for instance, both issued statements affirming UCLA’s and UC’s commitment to reproductive health care. Block cited the UCLA student health center’s “longstanding referral relationships with community facilities for abortion services when requested by students” and noted that UCLA is “working to implement California Senate Bill 24, which asks that each UC student health center offer abortion by medication services by or before 2023.”
Support will be critically needed in the coming days, months and years, said panelist Sue Dunlap, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, especially in places like Los Angeles, which has already become a destination for women seeking abortion care and broader reproductive and sexual health services.
The crucial role of California and Los Angeles
The mission now, Dunlap said, is to stop talking about the decision and to start thinking about and working toward logistics and infrastructure.
“For us in Los Angles, as health care providers, we have been planning for this moment for years,” Dunlap said. “We don’t know what the next 5 to 10 years will look like, but we have long known that, as a community, Los Angeles has an outsized role by virtue of the number of medical schools, our policies and social dynamics.”
Brad Sears, executive director of UCLA’s Williams Institute, a think tank focused on LGBTQ law and policy, noted that one of the first reports issued by the Center on Reproductive Health, Law and Policy estimated that an additional 10,000 women will come to California for abortion care each year in a post-Roe world, and half of them will come to Los Angeles.
Dunlap said she is optimistic about the moves already happening in California’s Legislature.
California state Sen. Sydney Kamlager, of Los Angeles, who also joined the panel, pointed out that there are currently 14 abortion-related bills in the Senate and Assembly, including one that would ensure clinicians can’t be penalized for performing the procedure and another that would create a revolving fund to help pay for abortion services. These services would include a $20 million pilot program in Los Angeles to secure infrastructure to support the expected increase in women coming to the city for reproductive care.
In addition, state legislators are working on an amendment that would enshrine abortion rights in California’s constitution.
“We’re working feverishly to provide a playbook not just for California but other states interested in being ‘sanctuary states’ for reproductive freedom,” Kamlager said. “If you’re seeking an abortion, you can come to California, we are ready to receive you. We have the funding, infrastructure and compassion to receive you.”
The panelists agreed that those hardest hit by ruling will be women living in poverty and women of color, many of whom reside in states that will have some of the most restrictive abortion laws. Most of those states, Franklin noted, also refused to take on Medicaid expansions that would have provided health care access to these same women.