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California Lawmakers Place Constitutional Amendment Protecting Abortion Rights on November Ballot

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Pro-choice demonstrators holding signs supporting abortion access march on the streets in downtown San Francisco. One woman holds a sign that says, 'Abortion is a human right."
Alixandra Ramos leads a group of demonstrators in a march through downtown San Francisco on Friday, June 24, 2022, to protest the US Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California voters will decide whether to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution, following the Assembly's vote on Monday to place the question on the November ballot.

With the passage of Senate Constitutional Amendment 10, state lawmakers positioned California as a sanctuary for reproductive rights. If a majority of voters approve the amendment, California would be among the first states to protect abortion rights in its constitution. The move comes just days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which revokes the longstanding constitutional right to an abortion.

"Friday was a dark day," state Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, the measure's author, said in a statement. "Today, we provide a ray of hope by enabling voters to enshrine reproductive rights in our constitution, reflecting California’s values and protecting all who need abortion, contraceptives, and other reproductive care in our state."

The measure, which required two-thirds approval but no gubernatorial sign-off, cleared the Assembly on a 58-16 vote.

The text of SCA 10 is sparse: If approved by voters, California's constitution would include language stopping the state "from denying or interfering with an individual’s reproductive freedom in their most intimate decisions, which includes their fundamental right to choose to have an abortion and their fundamental right to choose or refuse contraceptives."

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Discussion of the measure on the Assembly floor Monday evoked stirring testimony from legislators like Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, who said her decision to have an abortion in her mid-20s "led me on a path to where I am today."

"So that decision was critical for me, and it was mine," Wicks said. "We have to do everything in this state to say to the rest of the world that, here in California, we are truly a reproductive freedom state for all."

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But critics of the bill argue it lacks key details, including the kind of limits on abortions that the Supreme Court delineated in Roe v. Wade and a subsequent ruling, in which access to abortion was guaranteed up to the point of fetal viability.

Assemblymember James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, recounted his family's own experience with a series of high-risk pregnancies and the birth of his twin children, who were born 10 weeks premature.

"Right now, the wording of this says nothing about late-term, it puts no restrictions on it," Gallagher said. "And so babies like my twins, at 30 weeks, their lives could be taken."

Some legal scholars have raised similar concerns about the lack of legal guidance embedded in SCA 10, a measure written in the days after a leaked draft of the Supreme Court's decision was published in early May.

In a recent blog post, Allison Macbeth, a senior research fellow at the California Constitution Center at Berkeley Law, and Elizabeth Bernal, a UC Hastings College of Law student, wrote that the ballot could simply lead to further lawsuits about the limits of abortion rights in California.

"Leaving a big, blank slate for future courts to ride on is a big risk here," Bernal told KQED. "And we simply want to add in the language that specifically links the amendment to existing law before the Dobbs decision this past week."

But supporters touted the measure as a needed clarion call amid a shifting national landscape of reproductive rights: Abortion is now illegal or severely limited in 11 states, with more bans likely to follow. California's Legislature, with Democratic supermajorities in both houses, has promised funding to help patients pay for abortions, and related travel and lodging — and Democrats now hope this new measure will provide additional motivation for party voters to turn out in November.

"When women are coming and when birthing people are coming to the state of California, they can be assured their right to bodily autonomy, that their right to reproductive health, that their right to not feel and be second-class citizens will be granted," Assemblymember Mia Bonta, D-Oakland, said on the Assembly floor Monday.

KQED's Holly McDede contributed to this report. 

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