By Sarah Merriman, chapter leader at UC Hastings School of Law
California’s beautiful and sunny Central Valley is known for a major industry: agriculture. California farms earn over $45 million dollars yearly, and employ over 17,000 people to harvest those crops so that the country can eat. Those workers include scores of women and people of color, many of whom are low income mixed immigration status families, and have extremely limited access to abortion care. Even with Planned Parenthood getting some government support for its non-abortion services, close to half of California counties, many of them in the Central Valley, have no clinics offering abortion services. That means that the women who are helping to supply the country’s agricultural bounty have to drive hours just to access the most basic of reproductive health care. The political irony of these facts is that while many elected officials in the Central Valley are conservative, their constituents are made up of communities that require the reproductive health services that are often vilified in conservative rhetoric. Of course, California law allowing for reproductive health care access is strong – but in the Central Valley, the right to care does not translate to access to it.
For many, these facts may come as a surprise in a “deep blue” state with a Democratic supermajority. California’s worst kept secret, though, comes as no surprise to me. Just like sun and surf, this creeping anti-progressivism is part of the landscape of the state I’ve always called home.
It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I realized that abortion access is not just a moral decision but a healthcare right. I grew up in a small suburb in Southern California, barely north of the Hollywood sign. In school and in much of that community, I was surrounded by the idea that abortion (and, usually, the people who get them) is morally repugnant and unnatural, that only the “bad girls” got pregnant, that purity and chastity were the only worthy sexual values. In my Catholic girls’ school, we weren’t afforded the dignity of comprehensive sex education; instead, our minds were made for us – all sexual life was to be after marriage, or we’d risk moral corruption. The advertising of a weekly rosary led by a stout anti-choice teacher outside the local Planned Parenthood was my introduction to the health clinic.
Raised in a very pro-choice household, my mom would agree with Dr. Willie Parker, who calls abortion a “moral imperative.” And growing up in a conservative, often religious environment, I gained a superpower: I know intimately that anti-choice activists are not all alike, and that even in a highly liberal state, subtleties abound.
My passion for California healthcare sprouted from this often polarizing environment. I have found that advocates in California have opportunities to make nuanced changes in abortion access and expansion of care that many of our colleagues in states no longer interested in affirming a person’s right to control their own bodies can’t even begin to consider. As Texans, Arkansans, and Kentuckians fight just to keep the doors of their clinics open, Californians have the luxury of fighting for better access. Currently, there is a statewide push to require that medical abortion be an available service at University of California schools, to better serve students who might live on campus tens of miles from the nearest reproductive health clinic. However, we cannot assume that all Californians are taken care of for good. In this climate, there are no guarantees. At a conference I recently attended, it was shared that Trump’s vision of cutting funding to Planned Parenthood would take away access to preventative and reproductive care from all but a few independent clinics in the far north and south of an immense state.
And in the San Joaquin valley, an extreme shortage of doctors means there are fewer than 50 primary care physicians per 100,000 people; with the lack of medical care available, farmworkers (23% live below the federal poverty line) can ill afford to travel to medical appointments, if they can make them at all.
These types of reproductive justice problems, full of nuance about conservative communities such as the one I grew up in, are a privilege to be a part of as a lifelong lover of California. California has an opportunity to model a just society with comprehensive reproductive health care. What a worthy goal that I am thrilled to work towards in this state I have always loved.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of If/When/How.