Sep. 1, 2022
California as a safe haven for red-state women
Under current California law, a woman only has to be present in the state and fleeing from domestic violence in order to seek a domestic violence restraining order, which can include temporary orders for child custody or spousal and child support.
The repeal of Roe v. Wade has set in motion a state-by-state fight over the legal treatment of women that could lead some to seek refuge in safe havens like California.
Although the conservative Supreme Court majority's decision nominally only allowed states to set tighter restrictions on abortion - or even outlaw it entirely - these laws are so closely intertwined with women's rights in general that they are only the start.
In some cases, these laws are already on the books.
Consider Missouri, where a woman may not get a divorce if she is pregnant. Under Missouri Law Chapter 452.310, a parenting plan must be completed as part of the divorce process, which requires the state to establish paternity, which is only done by DNA testing after a child is born.
At the same time, after the court's ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, Missouri's trigger law banning abortions that aren't "medically necessary" went into effect.
Here's a scenario: A Missouri woman in an abusive relationship learns she is pregnant. She not only cannot divorce her abusive husband, but can't get an abortion in the state, and her husband has the full force of the law behind him on both sides.
What's more, abusers are often aware of these laws, and we have seen many cases of what's called "reproductive coercion," where an abusive partner seeks to limit or undermine women's access to contraception or sexually assault them to use an unwanted pregnancy to force them to stay in the relationship.
Even if a woman wants to go through with the pregnancy, she can't get a divorce to force her spouse to pay alimony or child support, which can make it financially difficult to leave.
For women in scenarios like this, their best alternative may be to leave Missouri entirely for a state like California.
Under current California law, a woman only has to be present in the state and fleeing from domestic violence in order to seek a domestic violence restraining order, which can include temporary orders for child custody or spousal and child support. That means even a woman prevented from getting a divorce in her home state can force her spouse to financially support her in California.
This support is crucial, because even some women in upper-income households are financially dependent on their spouses. That means as long as a woman can gather enough resources to come to California in the short term, she can use the court's protection to establish herself on more solid footing and break the cycle of abuse.
Already we are seeing women come to California for abortions, and more are expected.
A UCLA study estimates that as result of these new restrictions, between 8,000 and 16,100 more people will travel to California each year for abortion care. Of those, it estimates that between 4,700 and 9,400 will come to Los Angeles County alone.
Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom has called for making the state a "sanctuary" for those seeking abortions, signing legislation to protect their personal information from lawsuits in other states.
If California's other laws giving women greater legal protection gain more notice, the state may turn into something of a safe haven for women fleeing domestic violence as well.
The Judicial Council, the policy-making branch for state courts, could consider making it more clear in forms available online that out-of-state women have the right to a restraining order if they are present in the state and fleeing domestic violence. It's a small change, but implementing it could help spread the word.
There is nothing that will close the California-Missouri divide short of a constitutional amendment protecting the right to privacy or other national legislative changes, which seem unlikely in the current political moment.
But in the meantime, California can use its influence over its own state laws to help women who wish to leave states with more repressive legal regimes who may not otherwise have an option.
This won't necessarily open the floodgates to litigation in California, which already has a congested court system, but will most likely just give enough information to people who are most in need.