Abortion, in general, is legal in California and throughout the United States. However, California law places some limits on when a pregnant woman can terminate her pregnancy. Specifically, a woman can get an abortion up until her fetus becomes viable. And only qualified medical providers are allowed to perform legal abortions. If an abortion is performed outside the legal parameters, it can lead to criminal charges.
1. What is an abortion?
Abortion is a medical termination of a pregnancy. It ends the life of the fetus and does not produce a live birth. 1 2
2. Does California law place limitations on abortion rights?
Abortion laws in California grant women have a fundamental right to terminate her pregnancy. There are limitations, however.3
The right to an abortion is absolute in the state in 2 cases. These are when:
- the fetus is not yet viable, or
- the procedure is necessary to protect the life or health of the mother.4
Once the fetus becomes viable, though, a woman's right to abortion becomes more limited.5 Upon viability, abortion is only legal when necessary for the life or health of the mother.
Moreover, only qualified medical professionals may perform abortions. This is true even if the fetus is viable.6
Before getting an abortion, underage women have to give written consent. They have to get one of their parents' written consent, as well.7
Abortion rights are far stronger in California than in some other parts of the country. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that women have a right to have an abortion.8 That right is not absolute, however. States can limit place reasonable limits on it. Most states have. Most states have enacted strict laws that dictate where abortions can happen and who can provide them. In some cases, this leaves entire states with barely any abortion clinics.9
3. How late can you have an abortion in California?
There is no strict cut-off date as to when a pregnancy may be terminated. But absent special circumstances, abortion cannot be performed once the fetus becomes viable. By definition, a fetus becomes viable if it is likely to sustain survival outside of the uterus. It has to be able to survive without extraordinary medical measures.10
Doctors determine whether a given fetus is viable. They make this decision on a case-by-case basis.11
Typically, a fetus becomes viable around the 23rd week of the pregnancy. Doctors also consider a fetus to be viable once it weighs at least 500 grams.12
4. Who is allowed to perform abortions?
Not all medical professionals can provide a surgical abortion in California. They must have a valid medical license. That license cannot be revoked or suspended.13
Abortions by medication can be provided by a wider range of healthcare professionals, including:
- Licensed nurses,
- Midwives, and
- Physician's assistants.14
These abortions by medication need to happen early, however. They can only be conducted in the first trimester of the pregnancy.15
An employer cannot require medical professionals to perform an abortion. Doctors also cannot be penalized for refusing to provide one. Healthcare facilities can also refuse to provide abortions without facing legal repercussions.16
5. How can underage women get an abortion?
Barring a medical emergency, a minor who is pregnant has to go through extra steps before legally obtaining an abortion.17
Minors who want an abortion have to provide their written consent. They also have to provide written consent from at least one of their parents or legal guardians.
There is a process for minors to seek an abortion even over the objection of both parents. The minor can file a petition at the juvenile court. This petition must explain why the minor seeks an abortion. It is kept confidential by the court. Filing this petition triggers a hearing. That hearing has to happen within 3 days.
After considering the evidence, the court can grant the petition if it:
- decides the minor is mature and informed enough to legally consent to the abortion procedure, or
- the abortion is in the best interest of the minor.
If the court denies the petition, the minor can appeal.
The minor does not have to pay court costs or fees throughout this process.
Girls who are under 18 years old but who are emancipated do not need to go through these steps. There are 3 ways a minor can become emancipated:
- Get married,
- Join the military, or
- With a judge's declaration of emancipation.
6. What are the penalties for an unlawful abortion?
An unlawful abortion on a minor can lead to criminal charges. Those charges would be filed against the person who provided it. Knowingly performing an abortion on a minor without complying with California law is a misdemeanor. It carries up to:
- 30 days in jail, and/or
- $1,000 in fines.
(For discussion of the laws in Nevada, please see our page on illegal abortion laws in Nevada).
California Health and Safety Code 123420 – 123473.
California Health and Safety Code 123464(a). (“‘Abortion' means any medical treatment intended to induce the termination of a pregnancy except for the purpose of producing a live birth).
California Health and Safety Code 123462(b). (“Every woman has the fundamental right to choose to bear a child or to choose and to obtain an abortion, except as specifically limited by this article”).
California Health and Safety Code 123466.
California Health and Safety Code 123468(b).
California Health and Safety Code 123468(a).
California Health and Safety Code 123450(a).
See Reis Thebault, “Missouri's last abortion clinic is running out of time after judge's latest ruling,” The Washington Post (June 24, 2019).
California Health and Safety Code 123464(d).
California Health and Safety Code 123468(a) and California Business and Professions Code 2253(b)(1).
California Business and Professions Code 2253(b)(2).
California Health and Safety Code 123420.
California Health and Safety Code 123450.