Abortion hasn’t been a high-profile issue in the California governor’s race this year, and that makes sense: Voters here have long supported abortion rights, and a Democratic-controlled Legislature has sought to expand them.
But with President Donald Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court nomination raising the issue nationally, Democratic gubernatorial front-runner Gavin Newsom now says he wants to talk about it in his race against Republican John Cox.
“I have to,” said Newsom, a pro-choice Democrat, responding to a question from The Sacramento Bee about whether he plans to press the issue in his campaign. “He is not going to champion women’s health.”
It is yet another defining issue for voters choosing between Newsom, a San Francisco liberal, and Cox, a conservative from San Diego.
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Newsom is expected this week to denounce Cox’s anti-abortion views at a campaign event in San Francisco, where he is set to accept the endorsement of a national abortion-rights group. He said the state’s next governor will be poised to play a prominent role in ensuring a woman can have an abortion if she so chooses.
“With all due respect to those who say, ‘Oh, what’s a governor have to do with this?’ Everything. A ton,” Newsom said.
“It’s about Supreme Court decisions. It’s about having an administration that supports an attorney general that will advance lawsuits that protect this state, funding those efforts, supporting those efforts ... that go deep into the rollbacks and the restrictions on access that could impact even California’s unique status and our statewide laws,” he said. “This is not just about Roe v. Wade, it’s about reproductive rights, and it’s about the sustainability of the Affordable Care Act, and it’s about Trump and Trumpism and the impact it will have on women’s health.”
Enshrined in California law is a constitutional right to privacy, which the state Supreme Court has said protects abortion rights. Advocates and pro-life opponents agree it would be difficult to undo such protections, but a governor could block federal health care funding for clinics that provide abortion services and buoy federal efforts to overturn abortion-rights laws, representatives from pro-life and pro-choice groups said.
One example of a more immediate role a governor could play, he said, is “backfilling” clinics that provide abortions, including Planned Parenthood, should they lose federal health care funding.
Cox, who opposes abortion and has said during past campaigns that there should be no exceptions for incest and rape, declined several interview requests to discuss his views. His campaign spokesman Matt Shupe also declined interview requests on the matter.
Cox in the past has said organizations that provide or promote abortions should not receive any taxpayer funding. In a debate roughly a decade ago, when Cox was running for the Republican nomination for president, he responded “yes” to a questionnaire asking whether he’d nominate only judges who “refuse to legislate from the bench.” He also said he’d work to overturn decisions by “activist judges” on abortion rights.
Brian Johnston, chairman of the California Pro-Life Council, which has endorsed Cox, said defeating Newsom is a top priority for the organization, the state affiliate of the National Right to Life group.
He doesn’t believe laws protecting access to abortion would be immediately undone, saying, “We’re not going to get there in the near future.” But, he said, “It is coming.”
And Cox could help, he said.
Johnston said pro-life groups endorsed Cox in part because they believe he’d support restrictions on taxpayer spending for clinics that perform abortions. He also believes Cox would veto bills advanced by the Democratic-led Legislature that seek to expand access in California.
Senate Bill 320, currently in the Assembly, for example, would require college health centers to offer “non-surgical abortion services” to students.
“What most Californians don’t know is that the abortion business ... is largely underwritten by the government,” Johnston said. “Without that very, very hefty flow of government funds ... it would not do as well as it does.”
Newsom characterized the views as an assault on the ability of women to make their own health care decisions. He argued that a Cox governorship could fuel national Republican efforts to ban abortion.
It’s a view also held by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, also known as NARAL Pro-Choice America.
“There is a real threat,” said Leslie McGorman, the deputy policy director for NARAL. “Californians are thinking we don’t have anything to worry about even if (President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee) Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed, but if you have an anti-choice conservative in the governor’s seat working in tandem with the federal government pursuing a ban on abortions, they could get there.”
She said the Supreme Court could decide abortion is not a states’ rights issue and overturn past rulings guaranteeing access by instituting a nationwide ban. The state could also choose to cut funding to abortion providers and elevate lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of California’s abortion laws by offering political support.
“A Republican governor ... could mean you no longer have anyone in the governor’s mansion preventing new restrictions from taking effect,” McGorman said.
Newsom said he believes Cox is ducking the issue in the campaign because his anti-abortion views further hurt his electoral chances in a heavily Democratic state. More than 70 percent of California voters say the government should not interfere with a women’s access to abortion.
“This is a much bigger issue than he is going to profess it is, because I think he recognizes the vulnerability of his position beyond his own moral conscience, which I respect,” Newsom said. “From where the public is in this state and where I think the Trump administration could take our state, (elevating the issue) is something that is going to have to be done.”