March 15 (Reuters) – As soon as he learned that abortion provider Planned Parenthood wanted to open a new clinic in the central California town of Visalia, resident Rod Greenfield wrote to the five city council members and urged them to refuse the permit.
Another area resident, retired public health official Merrilyn Brady, began rallying supporters for the proposed clinic, which aimed to provide primary care and abortion services in part of the state. where both are rare.
In handwritten letters, emails and phone calls, more than 200 people shared their opinions about the clinic, communications obtained from the town hall. For two months, residents of Visalia, a city of 140,000 in the conservative San Joaquin Valley, as well as neighboring communities, attended crowded city council meetings.
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“This proposal will put our city to shame,” opponent Jaime Zamora wrote in an email in early February.
“The expansion of health care is crucial,” argued supporter Linda Collishaw in another email.
The fight for the Visalia Clinic is a window into the complicated and emotional politics of abortion, even in a largely liberal state like California. Last week, in the face of fervent resistance, Planned Parenthood leaders said they would seek a different site in the city.
Abortion advocates are scrambling to expand services in states like California and Illinois, where reproductive rights are enshrined in local laws, while conservative states like Texas, Missouri and Florida are taking action aggressively to limit access to the procedure. Read more
The deeply conservative United States Supreme Court will rule this spring on a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The case is widely expected to end or severely limit the right to abortion, some 50 years after a previous court legalized it in the landmark Roe v. Wade.
If that happens, battles like Visalia’s will become more common, predicted Wynette Sills, director of anti-abortion group Californians for Life.
“Once this is no longer a federal issue and becomes more of a state dynamic, I think we’ll see polarization even in California,” she said.
PARKING AND PROTESTS
At Visalia, patients seeking termination of a pregnancy at Planned Parenthood are referred to clinics one hour from Fresno and Bakersfield.
Seeking to expand beyond their existing small clinic and eventually provide abortions and abortion pills to Visalia, Planned Parenthood executives spent about six years searching for a new site, said Stacy Cross, president of the Planned Parenthood section that includes much of central California and Nevada. .
Last year, a landlord they worked with applied for permission to open a medical center on Mooney Boulevard, one of the city’s main shopping streets. Cross said they intentionally left Planned Parenthood’s name out of the app to avoid provoking opposition.
Developer David Paynter caught wind of the plans anyway.
In a Dec. 10 letter to the city’s planning commission, Paynter said the clinic would create parking issues for its nearby tenants, including Hobby Lobby, Regal Cinemas, Marshalls and Bed Bath & Beyond.
He also complained that Planned Parenthood protesters would disrupt nearby businesses.
After the planning commission approved the project, Paynter filed a formal appeal with the city council. He declined to comment further when contacted by Reuters.
Local fury grew when anti-abortion group Tulare-Kings Right to Life heard about the proposed clinic. The group asked residents to voice their opposition at city council meetings.
“We stand against this organization and are a voice for the voiceless,” the group said in a Feb. 2 Facebook post.
Brady, the retired public health official, wrote an op-ed defending the clinic and spoke at city council meetings. A Republican who voted twice for former President Donald Trump, Brady said she helped bring a Planned Parenthood clinic to provide contraceptives and sexual health care to a local community college more than 20 years ago. .
“I’m so upset with how conservatives, especially the far right, view this,” she said in an interview. “If we had free access and better sexual health education, we wouldn’t see the abortion rate we’re seeing.”
DIFFICULT WAY AHEAD
Cross and his team worked to persuade the city to support the clinic, talking with council members and emphasizing the goal of providing more primary and sexual health care.
But days before a scheduled public hearing, Cross concluded the plan would not win majority support from the board. Reluctantly, she pulled out of a deal to buy the Mooney Boulevard property.
Even so, a heated discussion of the proposal lasted nearly two hours at last week’s city council meeting. Opponents have sworn to fight any new location.
In an interview, Councilwoman Liz Wynn declined to say how she would have voted. She said she expected the city to help the reproductive rights organization find a more low-key site for a new clinic.
The other four board members did not respond to requests for comment.
Cross said the city sent out a list of potential locations, but was prepared for a tough road ahead.
“California is the most progressive state in the entire country when it comes to reproductive health care,” she said. “But even in this state there are pockets like Visalia that make it difficult.”
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Reporting by Sharon Bernstein Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Aurora Ellis
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