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Abortion debate surfaces in California governor’s race

Abortion debate surfaces in California governor’s race
John Cox and Gavin Newsom. (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times; Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

The nation’s divide over abortion rights is expected to be a telltale flashpoint between the two candidates for California governor who embrace starkly different views on the issue, even though protections for legal access to abortion have been cemented into state law for decades.

Staunchly anti-abortion and endorsed by organizations opposed to abortion, Republican John Cox argued in 2006 that cases of rape and incest should be no exception to a ban on abortion. Democrat Gavin Newsom wants to increase funding and accessibility for abortion and family planning and is strongly backed by Planned Parenthood, a frequent target of the Republican-led Congress and the Trump administration.

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“I think anybody who has a rape and incest exception to abortion really hasn’t thought it through. Killing the baby is not going to absolve the crime of rape,” Cox said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington 12 years before he finished in second place in the California primary.

Cox made the comment shortly before announcing an unsuccessful campaign for president. He also said he was “100% and proudly pro-life and I offer no apologies for it.”

With President Trump’s pending appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court rekindling the nation’s longstanding political clash over the issue, advocates on both sides foresee the court shifting to the right and a possible overturning of Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that guaranteed a nationwide right to abortion. Though just speculation ahead of having an actual nominee and confirmation hearings, a change in abortion rights probably would be tossed back into the mire of state politics.

“Depending on who Trump nominates, this issue starts to become an advantage to Democrats,” said Chapman University political scientist Lori Cox Han. “For John Cox, there’s really not any advantage at all.”

Though Cox in 2017 trumpeted his endorsement by the California Pro-Life Council and made his opposition to abortion clear, the issue has not been a major focal point of his campaign for governor. Instead, Cox has portrayed himself more as the conservative antidote to the policies of California Democrats that he says have wrought record poverty and homelessness and unaffordable housing and saddled residents with high taxes, including the recent increase in gas taxes.

It’s unlikely that Newsom or his supporters will let Cox’s past statements on abortion go unmentioned.

Cox has cited his Catholicism and also said his views on abortion were shaped after learning that his father “took advantage” of his mother before marrying her. The couple later divorced.

“She didn’t have the choice of an abortion because it wasn’t legal. If it had been, it might have been an easy decision to terminate me,” Cox wrote in “Politics, Inc.,” a political position paper that was published in 2006. “She didn’t, thank God, and so was born my absolute opposition to abortion on demand.”

Cox, a wealthy businessman from Rancho Santa Fe, also is a strong opponent of the death penalty.

“His personal positions on the death penalty and abortion are well known, but as Governor, he would abide by the law,” Cox campaign spokesman Matt Shupe said in an emailed statement to The Times.

Amy Everitt, director for NARAL Pro-Choice California, said the differences between the two candidates for governor who will be on the November ballot have never been more clear.

“John Cox, who’s never held elected office, has been consistent in one way, and that is as an anti-choice leader,” she said. “His values lie far outside mainstream California values.”

She said the group considers Newsom as someone who has been a strong supporter of abortion rights throughout his political career.

California’s lieutenant governor, formerly the mayor of San Francisco, boasted during the gubernatorial primary campaign about his efforts to raise money for Planned Parenthood to increase access to abortion and other healthcare services for women.

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Newsom also has called for the state to increase Medi-Cal reimbursement rates to healthcare providers, including Planned Parenthood, and to provide a permanent $100-million allocation for reproductive healthcare from the money raised by Proposition 56, the tobacco tax increase approved by voters in 2016.

Newsom said California’s next governor needs to be a leader in defending abortion rights throughout the country.

“There’s a deliberative effort to roll back reproductive rights in the country, to attack women, to demean women,” Newsom said during a candidate forum sponsored by NARAL Pro-Choice California in January.

“You need leaders to step into that debate. You need to call it out. You need to explain it. You need to expose it.”

Organizers said Cox was invited to the NARAL event, but that he did not respond. It ultimately featured only Democratic candidates.

California first legalized abortion in 1967, years before the Roe vs. Wade decision, and those protections have since been expanded and solidified through legislative statute and rulings by the California Supreme Court. Those protections include the right for funding for abortions provided to women covered by the Medi-Cal program and the right of minors to obtain an abortion without parental consent.

Still, a California governor who opposes abortion possesses enough executive authority to, at the very least, disrupt access, said Susan Berke Fogel, director of the reproductive health and justice programs at the National Health Law Program in Los Angeles. The governor could appoint an anti-abortion director to the California Health and Human Services Agency and cut funding for state programs that help pay for abortions and provide access to birth control, she said.

The governor also appoints judges, including to the state Supreme Court, and could attempt to reshape the judiciary and subsequent legal decisions regarding abortion rights in California.

Decades ago, Republican Gov. George Deukmejian made several cuts to the state's family-planning programs. Fogel doubts a similar move would survive a legal challenge, but that wouldn’t stop an activist anti-abortion governor from trying, and “it would be disruptive,” Fogel said.

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Unlike the U.S. Constitution, California’s Constitution includes a clear-cut right to privacy, a legal foundation protecting a woman’s right to choose to have a child or a legal abortion.

Wynette Sills, director of the anti-abortion organization Californians for Life, agrees with Fogel that even if Roe vs. Wade was overturned, abortion would still be legal in the state.

Still, electing Cox to be the next governor would help prevent the Legislature from making abortion even more prevalent in California. Cox, for example, could use his veto power to reject Senate Bill 320, pending legislation that would require health clinics on University of California and California State University campuses to provide drugs prescribed for medication abortion by 2022.

“Reasonable citizens of California will agree that our state Legislature is to the far extreme in promoting abortion,” Sills said. “We are seeking a reasonable and critical balance to the aggressive abortion actions we’re seeing at the Capitol, and John Cox would provide that balance.”

Most Californians consider abortion to be a settled issue in the state, Han said. For years, they have rejected every attempt to chip away as those protections, including voting against statewide initiatives to require greater parental consent for minors seeking abortions.

A 2017 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that more than 70% of Californians believe government should not interfere with a woman’s access to abortion, compared with the 27% who wanted the government to pass more restrictions. That view was held across the political spectrum, including by a majority of Republicans, and the overall findings were consistent in surveys going back to 2000.

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