The California Fight for Abortion Access for All: #ACLUTimeMachine

Oct 20, 2017
Bethany Woolman

Page Media

A clipping from the 1981 ACLU News announcing victory in the lawsuit to protect abortion care in California

If the news has got you feeling like this lately, you’re not alone:

The President is attempting to wrest birth control from millions of Americans, including those who are otherwise unable to afford it. The GOP-controlled House has passed a bill to criminalize people who get or provide abortions after twenty weeks of pregnancy. And in a case involving a pregnant teen girl in Texas, the federal government and seven state attorneys general are trying to argue that undocumented immigrants don’t have abortion rights at all.

So this is a good time to rageand to remember our history. Resistance works, and we do have the power to take action – whether that means donating to an under-resourced abortion clinic, spreading the word, raising your voice, organizing locally, taking to the streets, or all of the above.

Today I’d like to celebrate a piece of California history that underscores why reproductive justice is about more than just rights – reproductive justice is also about ensuring that people can actually access the reproductive health care they need.

In the late 1970s, abortion rights and abortion access were under attack nationwide. An old photo of a woman at a pro-choice rally in San Francisco holding a sign saying "keep your laws off my body!"

The recent Roe v. Wade ruling had benefited all Americans by drastically lowering the rates of unsafe and self-performed abortions. Nevertheless, a conservative Congress responded by passing the Hyde Amendment in 1976, which blocked access to abortion for poor people who relied on federally funded health care.

The Hyde Amendment had, and still has, a disproportionate and pernicious impact on people of color, who are more likely to use federal programs like Medicaid because systemic racism creates and reinforces poverty. Today, women of color continue to lead the reproductive justice movement and are creating space for people to tell their abortion stories.    

Back to the 1970s. Despite Congress’s decision to pass the Hyde Amendment, California’s Medi-Cal program – funded by state funds – still covered abortion. This was relatively uncontroversial at the time.

But in 1978, the California legislature voted to essentially de-fund abortion coverage statewide. This budgetary decision would have cut off abortion care access for over 95% of poor Californians and would have affected 100,000 teens and poor women each year. So the ACLU and our allies got to work.

Maggie Crosby and co-counsel at a press conference announcing the California Supreme Court victory.ACLU of Northern California staff attorney Maggie Crosby filed a lawsuit on behalf of a number of plaintiffs, including a California reproductive rights organization now known as ACCESS, community clinics serving Medi-Cal patients, welfare rights organizations, medical providers, and women’s rights groups. The legal team had no way of knowing that their work would become a twelve-year battle to maintain medical funding for poor women’s abortions.

Crosby argued that it was unconstitutional and discriminatory for the government to use state funds to coerce poor pregnant women into childbirth over abortion. The California Supreme Court agreed. In 1981, the Court handed down a decision that read, in part, "Once the state furnishes medical care to poor women in general, it cannot withdraw part of that care solely because a woman exercises her constitutional right to have an abortion.”

The fight should have ended there. But for nine years, the legislature rebelled against the Supreme Court ruling and attempted to cut abortion funding from the budget every summer. And every year, for nine years, Crosby would work through the Fourth of July weekend in order to challenge the illegal funding cuts in court. Every year, she prevailed. The budget cuts never took place because of the orders issued in these cases, and Medi-Cal still covers abortion care in California to this day. 

Bethany Woolman is a Communications Strategist with the ACLU of Northern California.