To be a tiny red dot in a bright blue state comes with responsibility, according to Mary Lee Shrider, the director of Right to Life Kern County in Bakersfield, Calif. She is especially aware of it now, when Gov. Newsom (D) looks poised to sign a bill making California the first state to require public colleges and universities to offer the abortion pill. Shrider knows that the rest of the country is watching. If California passes this law, she says, she’s sure other states will, too.
The city of Bakersfield and its surrounding valley — which one longtime resident calls “California’s final fortress of conservative thought” — is a kind of last defense, says Shrider, who has lived in Bakersfield for over 50 years. The district seat of state House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Bakersfield is one of the most right-leaning cities with a state university — California State University in Bakersfield — making it one of the most right-leaning cities directly affected by the proposal. So while the bill has widespread support from California’s blue supermajority, in Bakersfield, many are doing whatever they can to stop it.
“Republicans here are fighting tooth and nail for conservative values, but we’re just overwhelmed,” says Shrider.
The difference in attitudes around abortion between Bakersfield and other parts of the state are obvious, says Anna Bakh, former regional director for Students for Life, who travels to campuses around California to drum up resistance to the college abortion legislation. When she goes to the University of California at Berkeley or Los Angeles, or other California public schools, she typically faces overwhelming criticism. But in Bakersfield, she says, it’s different. Far more people come out and join her. Sometimes residents are “apathetic,” she says, assuming that college abortions could never come to a campus in a GOP stronghold.
So far, the Bakersfield activists have succeeded in helping to thwart similar bills. They traveled to Sacramento last year, when state legislators were debating a near identical predecessor to this bill, Senate Bill 320. Kimberly Ortiz, who graduated last year from Cal State Bakersfield, joined Shrider at the state capitol, rallying against the bill and sharing her own personal experience with abortion.
“I told them I think that simply having the chemical abortion on campus is unnecessary. I don’t think any woman should have to go on campus and think, ‘Hey, I can end my child’s life right now,’” said Ortiz.
The experience was initially discouraging, says Shrider.
But in a surprising decision last fall, then-Democratic Governor Jerry Brown vetoed SB320. Explaining his decision, Brown said that most public colleges are relatively close to an abortion clinic, making it unnecessary to offer abortion pills on campus. That line of reasoning was a primary talking point in the campaign Shrider led against the bill. Shrider believes her and her neighbors, as well as other vocal conservatives across the state, had an impact.
This time around, anti-abortion activists have been attempting to strike down the mandate for public colleges and universities to offer the abortion pill, arguing that each school should be able to make its own decision. In this way, Shrider said, areas like Bakersfield could keep the kind of policies the community would prefer.
But Bakersfield residents on the other side of the abortion debate argue that it’s particularly important for colleges in a right-leaning city like theirs to offer abortions. While most other campuses, nestled in liberal areas, have abortion clinics nearby, Bakersfield only has one. Some women are afraid to go because of the anti-abortion activists often stationed outside, says Jennifer Bloomquist, the founder of Pro-Choice Kern County.
“They are notorious for taking ‘creeper shots’ of women going in and out of the clinic and posting them online,” says Bloomquist. “They are trying to shame them.”
If Bakersfield residents don’t want to go to that clinic, she says, the next-closest one is in Los Angeles, over an hour and a half away.
Bloomquist knows that, as a Democrat who supports abortion, state legislation is likely to go her way. Still, she often feels attacked for her views, living in Bakersfield.
It can be easy to forget that, beyond the valley, the map is overwhelmingly blue.