A state lawmaker is proposing to allow nurse practitioners, physician assistants and nurse midwives to perform routine abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy as a way of expanding access to the procedure across California.
Only doctors may perform aspiration abortions, the most common method of terminating early pregnancies, under existing state law. But many parts of California, particularly rural areas, do not have enough of those physicians, said state Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego), author of the proposal, which is co-sponsored by the heads of both legislative houses.
"We believe it will give many California women access to earlier, safer procedures in the first trimester of their pregnancy," Kehoe said at a news conference in Sacramento on Tuesday.
Abortion rights proponents celebrated Kehoe's measure as one that bucks the national trend of restricting access to the procedure. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive health issues, found that legislators across the country proposed a record number of laws limiting abortion last year and that 135 became law.
"I think this is another situation where California is a pioneer," said Margaret Crosby, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
But Camille Giglio, a lobbyist for the anti-abortion group California Right to Life, expressed disgust that the state would cast itself as a leader on abortion access. "This is the first step down the road to making it appear like it's a simple, drive-by, 15-minute diversion," she said.
The Guttmacher Institute says 39 states require that abortions be performed by physicians. The abortion rights advocates who joined Kehoe on Tuesday said only four states -- Oregon, Montana, Vermont and New Hampshire -- specifically permit non-physicians to handle the aspiration procedure.
In 2002, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed a law that allowed some non-physician professionals to provide medication that causes an abortion, provided they are supervised in some manner by a doctor. Kehoe's proposal would expand that law to include aspiration abortions, done with a suction device.
Kehoe's supporters contend that half of California's counties do not have a physician who regularly provides abortion and argued that the proposal, SB 1501, would improve healthcare in those underserved areas.
Ana Rodriguez, executive director of ACCESS Women's Health Justice, said women often call her group complaining of the distances they must travel to end a pregnancy safely. One Central Valley mother of four had to take a 3 a.m. bus to San Francisco, Rodriguez said, and a resident near Lake Tahoe took an train to a hospital and saved on hotel costs by sleeping in a restroom at the facility.
"No one should face these hurdles to access a safe and legal medical procedure," Rodriguez said.
California's overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature has strongly favored abortion rights. The bill's text had just begun circulating in the Capitol on Tuesday but already had sponsorship from the two most influential legislators, Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).
Lawmakers opposed to abortion, however, were furious.
"My immediate response when I heard about this bill was visceral -- I felt like I was kicked in the gut," Assemblyman Brian Jones (R-Santee) said in a statement. "I shouldn't be shocked at the moral failure this represents, but I fear what it says about our society that we are actually looking for more ways to abort babies."
Times staff writer Anthony York in Sacramento contributed to this report.