Public debates abortion at city council meeting

Pro-Life, Pro-Choice factions split city hall, public comments at March 7 Visalia City Council meeting despite Planned Parenthood project being pulled from Mooney Boulevard, Monday night’s agenda

VISALIA – A plan to relocate Planned Parenthood to Mooney Boulevard may not have gone to a vote by the Visalia City Council, but the issue of abortion was heavily debated by the public anyway.

Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, the branch of the national health care provider covering the Valley, and the developer of the proposed site, The Orosco Group, announced over the weekend they had withdrawn the project amid concerns about controversy on Mooney Boulevard and the potential for disruption to commerce, no matter how unfounded. Numerous news articles announced the city council would not be weighing in on the Planning Commission’s approval of a new, larger Planned Parenthood clinic at 3221 S. Mooney Blvd., because the project had requested an “indefinite continuance” Friday, March 4, and Mayor Steve Nelsen announced the same after opening the March 7 meeting. None of that stopped a few hundred people from gathering into for- and against-Planned Parenthood camps outside the council chambers and onto the sidewalk in front of City Hall. 

Nelsen limited public comment to 19 speakers at 3 minutes each and took a five minute recess at about 8:30 p.m. before reconvening the meeting to consider the rest of the night’s agenda. Like the Feb. 7 council meeting, there were some fanatical comments spreading social media rumors about Planned Parenthood selling baby parts on the blackmarket, that it was founded as a ploy to rid the world of minority babies, and that its clinics actively participate in human trafficking. All of these are false, based on political statements taken out of context, and then used to misinform the public through the internet. Those on the other side also made less than sound arguments the city council was incapable of making the right decision because they are white, heterosexual and Christian. But for the most part, the March 7 hearing was far more reasonable and calm than it was a month ago.

The speakers were split evenly on the issue, pointing out the deep divides in the Pro-Life/Pro-Choice debate, and included activists, doctors and even religious leaders on both sides. However, the debate over abortion was a moot point, not only because the project isn’t moving forward, but because Planned Parenthood doesn’t currently offer surgical abortions and has no plans to begin offering them. 

Planned Parenthood Mar Monte – the affiliate or chapter covering the Central Valley, Reno and a small portion of the Bay Area – did recently expand that service to Kern County, but does not offer it in Visalia. In fact, there aren’t any locations in Tulare County that offer surgical abortions, the procedure most opponents were describing in the imagery they used. The Visalia clinic does offer abortion referrals at its current location. 

Cathy Cummings acknowledged surgical abortions are not performed in Visalia, or in Tulare County, and said she was thankful young women had to drive an hour north or south to get an abortion because it gave them time to change their mind before going through with an abortion. 

“Those are lives that have been saved,” she said. 

Health Care
Marilyn Brady, a retired public health nurse, said she was part of the group who helped bring Planned Parenthood to Tulare County. Brady said her appreciation of Planned Parenthood began as a senior in high school when one of her friends became pregnant. The girl was taken out of school by her parents for two years as she carried the baby to term and then cared for a newborn. Now, more than 50 years later, Brady said her extended career in public health, including her time as a nurse coordinating the student health services program at College of the Sequoias following her retirement from the college, has furthered her passion for providing preventative reproductive health care to all people in need. In 2002, Brady presented the idea of bringing Planned Parenthood to the community college’s new health center to the board of trustees for approval. 

“I expected I would have a considerable negative response to that. However, our board was 100% in support of bringing Planned Parenthood into the COS Health Center, and this was its first presence in Tulare County,” Brady said. “And since then, I have observed the benefit that Planned Parenthood has provided for many young people, and adults as well, in Tulare County.”

Ann Marie Paden, a fertility care practitioner who is also the assistant director for Tulare/Kings Right to Life, a Pro-Life nonprofit, said she opposed Planned Parenthood, despite its public health benefits, because she took an oath to do no harm.

“I’m a woman. I am pro woman. I am in favor of affordable and equitable health care for women, children, and all people and women deserve better than abortion,” Paden said.

Paden said when she was 19 years old she was pregnant and went to a family planning clinic to take a free pregnancy test. When it came back positive, she said the staff there asked her if she wanted to schedule an abortion before she was offered an ultrasound, adoption options, counseling or other resources. She said she went on to abort her children at Planned Parenthood in Fresno.

“The remorse that I felt plagues me to this day,” Paden said. 

Dr. Katherine Hall, a local pediatrician who has practiced in Tulare County since 1978, said she has always been willing to talk with her teenage patients about birth control but Planned Parenthood is where they could actually walk in and get it without having insurance or notifying their parents. 

“They haven’t done abortions locally, but they do provide sex ed,” she said. “What we need in this county is more and better sex ed and we need more access to birth control.”

Dr. Patricia Santy, who has been a physician and psychiatrist for 50 years, said she has a unique perspective on the abortion issue. She has been a pregnant teenager who got an abortion at the age of 17 and a physician who has cared for the physical and mental health of women who have undergone abortions at Planned Parenthood. She said she has seen the devastating consequences of her choice, and the choice of other women, to kill their unborn children. She told the council about her own bouts with depression and the guilt, shame and regret expressed by many of her patients long after their decision. 

“That choice to kill my own child has haunted me for over 50 years,” she said. “I tried to console myself with the well worn phrases from the feminist movement, that I was a victim of my biology but in truth, biology is the one thing that advocates of abortion choose to ignore.”

Faith Care
Suzy Ward, reverend of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, said she was there to offer a different faith-based viewpoint. She said her denomination has worked to address womens’ right to reproductive health and has “expressed its unequivocal opposition to any actions by any government body at any level that abridges the access of women to receive such care.” She said she believes the sanctity of life includes access to health care regardless of income, gender, sexual orientation or sexual activity. She said Planned Parenthood provides all walks of women which includes access to as many resources and opinions as possible for them to make an informed decision about their health.

“Limiting access, limiting exposure, limiting visibility in our community is a strategy to limit the healthiest choices for a segment of Visalia’s neediest citizens,” she concluded.

Sharon Jansma, speaking as a board member on behalf of Visalia First church, said while many were at the meeting to speak for others who could not attend, she was there to speak for those unable to speak at all. She said the church loves and values all of the people who seek care at Planned Parenthood, the mothers who have had to go through the trauma of abortion and the babies who were never born. 

“We ask that you protect the unborn so that they can have an opportunity to live in our wonderful city,” Jasma said. “They cannot speak for themselves, so we ask that you honor the unborn and the opportunity that they have.”

Suggestions for the future
Aaron Oliver said the city of Visalia’s enforcement powers include regulating for the health, safety and public morals of the community. He asked the city to implement three changes to its policies regarding future applications for medical clinics, including requiring applicants to disclose whether or not they will perform any abortions, surgical or not, create a separate land use category for abortion providers, and an outright ban on all voluntary abortions. 

“Pro abortion advocates argue that faith and religion do not belong in land use decisions, and that abortion is a political issue or a women’s health issue, but this is truly a matter of life and death. It is indeed a moral issue,” Oliver said. 

Travis Paden, a current member of the Hanford Planning Commission, said the city should initiate an emergency ordinance to define and regulate what constitutes medical service in the city limits. 

In the case of Planned Parenthood, Paden said the name of the health care provider was never mentioned on the Site Plan Review agenda, or the Planning Commission’s Dec. 13 agenda for the medical clinic’s conditional use permit, nor on the city’s own agenda for a hearing to discuss the appeal of the Planning Commission’s decision. 

“The emergency ordinance hopefully would clearly define medical use in creating proper zone text language between medical facilities to help people heal and those medical facilities that kill,” he said.

Carol Greening, a Visalia resident who has been active in environmental issues within the city, said the city should deny the appeal filed by a neighboring property owner even though the project has been withdrawn. She called the issue over abortion a “non-starter” since the proposed location was not zoned for surgical procedures. She also said if there was not a need for a Planned Parenthood, then it would have already shuttered for lack of patients. She likened the dilemma of anti-abortion advocates to fast food. Greening said she believes strongly in not eating fast food, but, despite those personal beliefs, does not have the right to prevent others from poisoning their bodies with processed foods. 

“Access to healthcare is a human right. It is an essential service in our community,” Greening said. “While some people may not believe in Planned Parenthood, they do not have the right to block other people from their right to access it. The solution for the council is to allow the Planned Parenthood clinic as nonbelievers will never be forced to use it.”

Dolores Huerta, who co-founded United Farmworkers with Cesar Chavez and is president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, said if Planned Parenthood had existed in the Valley when her mother was alive, their women’s health services like mammograms for low-income people could have prolonged her life shortened by breast cancer at just 51 years old. Huerta said without Planned Parenthood, many women, especially young women, could be forced to seek less reputable and unsanitary places to get an abortion, putting the mother’s life at risk.

“A woman cannot be free, unless she decides what to do with her body,” Huerta said.

Youth Care
Several young people spoke in favor of Planned Parenthood as well. Karina, who did not provide her last name, said even though the council was not voting on Planned Parenthood, it was the city’s responsibility to find a suitable location for a new, larger clinic proposed on Mooney. More than abortion referrals, she said Planned Parenthood provides gender affirming care for members of the LGBTQ community, comprehensive sex education not provided in public schools and, more importantly, free contraception to prevent the need for abortions. 

“It’s a safe place where people can go and ask for whatever medical services they want,” Karina said. “It’s not just one thing. It’s not just about abortion. It is primary health care, something that in Tulare County is really hard to find.”

Another speaker, who went by the name Mars, said Planned Parenthood was the only place for a transgender man could find gynelogical care. Mars said he felt compelled to speak to the council on behalf of many in the queer community who did not feel comfortable speaking for themselves.

“Planned Parenthood is the only clinic that would not bat an eye at my existence and would give me the health care that I deserve like everyone else,” Mars said. “Planned Parenthood is about inclusion and safety. Please don’t take this piece of accessibility away from us.”

Erica Hawkyard, youth program manager for The Source LGBTQ+ Center, said the gender affirming care provided by Planned Parnthood is essential to reducing rates of suicide, depression and anxiety among queer youth. 

“Planned Parenthood, it is one of the only places they feel safe going to the doctor,” Hawkyard said. “So I’m asking you to protect their right to live their life the way that they choose authentically, safely and with access to medical care.”

Rick Wayne Mueller, board president for Tulare/Kings Right to Life, said he was “dumbfounded” when he found out a minor could get an abortion without their parents’ consent at Planned Parenthood in Fresno. He became more concerned last fall when Gov. Gavin Newsom convened the California Future of Abortion Council which recommended the state become an abortion sancutary for women from other states planning to ban abortion if the U.S. Supereme Court were to overturn Roe vs Wade this summer. The panel also recommended state-sponsored scholarships for physicians to improve access in underserved areas, remove barriers to later term abortions and to collect data to evaluate the effectiveness of sex education in public schools. 

‘I’d like Visalia to consider becoming a sanctuary city for the unborn,” Mueller said. 

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