A billboard reading “Welcome to California where abortion is safe and still legal” stands near the intersection of Highway 111 and Bob Hope Dr. in Rancho Mirage, Calif., June 24, 2022.
By Lane Sainty |Arizona Republic
It’s a 250-mile drive from metro Phoenix, home to nearly 5 million people, to the California desert city of El Centro, population about 44,000.
El Centro sits at the bottom of the Golden State, about 12 miles from the Mexico border in the Imperial Valley, one of California’s most productive agricultural regions.
It’s there that Planned Parenthood operates the Imperial Valley Health Center, for most Arizonans the closest out-of-state clinic offering abortions. It sits in an ordinary-looking strip mall not far from the freeway, a few beige storefronts down from a Thai bistro.
Getting there from Phoenix means driving south through the saguaro-dotted desert to Gila Bend, joining Interstate 8 southwest. In Yuma, drivers zoom by a blue sign decorated with a posy of yellow poppies, welcoming them to California.
As they pass over the state line, a lot changes when it comes to abortion.
On the Arizona side of the blue sign, patients must receive in-person counseling and wait 24 hours before they can undergo an abortion. They must receive an ultrasound, and be asked if they want to see the image. Abortions via telehealth, where patients receive pills in the mail, are completely banned.
On the California side of the sign, none of these barriers exist. State laws there protect access to abortions with few restrictions and a move is under way to affirm the right in the state constitution.
The differences between Arizona and California will become starker in the wake of Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down Roe vs. Wade. As Planned Parenthood suspends abortion services in Arizona, it is possible many women will now seek abortions in California, considered a “safe haven” state based on its laws. And many will find themselves on the long drive to El Centro.
Preparing for the worst
For months, as the Supreme Court mulled the fate of Roe, Tessa Hemmi, who works with Planned Parenthood in San Diego, braced for a worst-case scenario.
But still, the draft court opinion that leaked in May, revealing that the 1973 precedent would fall before its 50th birthday, hit hard.
Tessa Hemmi is the Care Coordination Program Manager at Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest.
“A punch in the stomach,” Hemmi says, describing how she felt when Politico published its bombshell scoop.
“It was a very hard week. And I think that’s when reality really started hitting other folks outside of the abortion community.”
Inside it, though, the decision was expected. According to Hemmi, people have been busy laying “months and months and months” of groundwork.