California Abortion Laws: Legal and Illegal Abortion

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In 1967, then California governor Ronald Reagan signed the Therapeutic Abortion Act into law, making California the first state to formally legalize abortions. Although this was radical legislation for its time, it imposed fairly restrictive regulations compared to current California abortion laws. For a woman to obtain an abortion, a hospital committee had to examine her case and determine that an abortion was in her best interest because the pregnancy would adversely impact her physical or mental health. In 1969, the California Supreme Court loosened the law’s restrictions, ruling that a woman has the fundamental right to make her own decisions about her reproductive health.

Today, California abortion laws are among the most liberal in the country. Other states with similarly liberal abortion laws include New York, Vermont and New Jersey. In contrast, many states have fairly restrictive abortion laws, such as Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana. These states’ laws largely prohibit the procedure outside of specific time frames and circumstances.

California Abortion Laws: Minors

The California abortion laws for minors are almost identical to those imposed on adults. The only difference between the California abortion laws for minors and the California abortion laws for adults is that unemancipated minors are required to obtain parental consent to have an abortion performed. This requirement is written into California Health and Safety Code Section 123450. However, the reality that California minors face to obtain abortions is a bit different than the requirements that are written into the law.

In 1997, the California Supreme Court ruled that the state’s requirements that minors obtain parental consent for abortions was unconstitutional because it violated the state’s constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy. As a result, this law remains part of California’s legal code, but it is not enforced. Unemancipated minors, just like adults and emancipated minors in California, may obtain abortions without first obtaining parental approval.

Read More: What Are the California Abortion Laws?

California Abortion Laws: Weeks

Most states impose restrictions on how late into her pregnancy a woman may obtain an abortion, and California is no different. However, there are no strict California restrictions. Instead, California law prohibits abortions on fetuses deemed to be viable. Generally, the cutoff for California abortions under this guideline is 24 weeks.

However, there are exceptions to this cutoff in California. Because the cutoff test is fetal viability, rather than a specific number of weeks following conception, medical professionals have some leeway to perform legal abortions at up to about 28 weeks, depending on the individual circumstances. Additionally, abortions may be legally performed past this time frame if the pregnancy is determined to pose a risk to the woman’s health or safety.

When determining fetal viability, a healthcare provider must determine in good faith that there is a reasonable likelihood that the fetus would survive outside its mother’s womb without significant medical intervention. In other words, if a healthcare provider genuinely believes that the fetus can be born and develop relatively normally after closely examining the pregnancy, the fetus is deemed viable.

What Defines an Illegal Abortion?

Under California law, an illegal abortion is an abortion that is performed:

  • By an individual who is not authorized to perform the procedure.
  • Without the woman’s consent.
  • After the fetus is viable.

Technically, it is also illegal for an abortion provider to perform an abortion on a minor who has not provided parental consent for the procedure, but this law is not generally enforced. An individual does not have to be a doctor to be authorized to perform abortions in California. Medical professionals who may perform abortions are:

  • Nurse practitioners.
  • Physicians.
  • Surgeons.
  • Physician assistants.
  • Nurse midwives.

When California's Therapeutic Abortion Act was signed into law, it was done to protect women from being injured or killed by illegal, often unsafe, abortions. In 1966 and 1967, there were 35 recorded maternal deaths resulting from illegal abortions. Between 1972 and 1974, there was only one.

Penalties for Illegal Abortions

It is illegal for an unauthorized party to perform an abortion in California, even if he was previously authorized to perform the procedure. For example, a physician whose medical license has been suspended may not perform abortions. An individual found guilty of performing an abortion without being authorized to do so faces up to one year in jail and up to $10,000 in fines. A healthcare provider who violates California abortion laws faces having her medical license suspended or revoked.

Although California’s parental consent law for minors seeking abortions is not currently enforced, the law does include penalties for healthcare providers found guilty of violating this law. If the law were to be enforced, healthcare providers found guilty of performing abortions for minors who have not obtained parental consent could face up to $1,000 in fines and up to 30 days in jail.

Any act that causes an abortion without the woman’s consent can be charged as murder. Similarly, the abortion of a viable fetus can be charged as murder in California when there is no medical justification for the abortion.

Insurance and Abortion in California

In California, most private insurers are required to cover abortions. Medi-Cal, California’s state-level Medicaid program, also covers abortions and related expenses. In addition to insurance coverage, there are numerous programs in place in California that make it possible for women to obtain abortions for free or at significant discounts. California does not bar women from other states from traveling to the state to obtain abortions.

In 2019, governor Gavin Newsom signed the College Student Right to Access Act into law. This law requires all state universities to offer medical abortions to students at no cost. A medical abortion is an abortion induced through pharmaceutical means, typically with Mifepristone, also known as “the abortion pill.” In addition to providing no-cost abortions, state universities must set aside $200,000 each to create clinic hotlines for students seeking abortion-related advice and assistance under this law.

Requirements and Restrictions for Abortions in California

In many states, women must meet certain criteria in order to obtain abortions. These criteria vary from state to state, and include:

  • Mandatory counseling.
  • Waiting periods of 24 to 72 hours.
  • Mandatory ultrasound procedures, during which the technician may be required to show the woman the ultrasound image.

In California, women seeking abortions face no such restrictions. They also do not face restrictions on reasons for pursuing abortions, like Utah’s ban on citing a fetal Downs Syndrome diagnosis as a reason for pursuing an abortion or the bans on sex-selective abortions in Oklahoma and Arizona. In California, women seeking abortions prior to the point of fetal viability do not have to give their healthcare providers any specific reasons for seeking abortions; they have the right to terminate early pregnancies for any reasons they deem appropriate.

Abortions do not have to be performed in hospitals in California. They may be performed in authorized doctors’ offices, as well as in family planning clinics, including Planned Parenthood locations. California law permits religiously affiliated hospitals and clinics to abstain from providing abortions, and individual healthcare providers also have this right.