[Update, 5/12/15, 2:15 p.m.: Planned Parenthood late Monday evening received the documentation it needs to open an abortion-providing clinic in El Centro, California, after threatening to sue the city for arbitrarily withholding required papers. The organization will now be able to move forward with opening the clinic. A full range of services, including abortion, are set to be available within the next few weeks to a month.]
A battle is brewing between abortion advocates and conservative lawmakers in a pocket of California along the Mexico and Arizona borders.
Planned Parenthood has been working for months to open an abortion-providing clinic in El Centro, the seat of Imperial County. But the organization says the city has been putting up arbitrary blockades in the face of vocal opposition from a small number of opponents, who have formed an organization called the Imperial Valley Coalition for Life to pressure officials not to allow abortions.
Planned Parenthood is pushing back.
"We are ready to file a lawsuit against the city of El Centro," Tracy Skaddan, general counsel for Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest told Fusion.
Days before the clinic was to open this spring, Planned Parenthood says, the city denied its request for an occupancy permit, finally issuing it on May 5 after several weeks had elapsed. Now, the fire chief is withholding final paperwork to provide abortions at the center, Planned Parenthood contends, and arguing that the facility needs to meet more stringent building code requirements that are outside of what is typically required. While the clinic did open last Thursday, the hours are restricted and abortion is not allowed.
"This is unprecedented," Skaddan said, noting that Planned Parenthood operates a number of other abortion-providing clinics in southern California that do not meet the stricter requirements.
The fire department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Fusion.
While the hold up is over abortion, Planned Parenthood says the red tape is depriving women who badly need it of general healthcare.
Nestled near the border with Mexico, more than 80 percent of Imperial County's residents are Hispanic, according to Census data, and many are Spanish-speaking. The organization says it has been working to build community trust for years, using promotores de salud to educate Spanish-speaking residents about birth control, cancer screenings and general family health. Planned Parenthood says it raised money for a new health center that would provide these services, along with abortions, with the backing of 82 percent of Imperial County residents.
Only about five percent of the Pacific Southwest chapter's services are abortion-related, according to the group, while 95 percent are family planning and healthcare-related, and open to people regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. Imperial County, with a median household income of around $42,000 and a poverty rate of more than 23 percent, ranks absolute last in the state when it comes to clinical care, according to rankings from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Planned Parenthood says that almost 13,000 women in the county needed publicly funded birth control in 2010, but according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice group that tracks abortion laws and statistics, less than 30 percent received it.
"Our services are critical in an area that has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and one of the highest teen birth rates in California," Cita Walsh, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, told Fusion.
But the plan came under fire from vocal national opponents that include Michele Bachmann, David Gibbs (the lead attorney for Terri Schiavo's family), and Alveda King, a conservative NAACP civil rights activist, and El Centro, Planned Parenthood says, has been dragging its feet.
The organization says that, without the ability to provide abortion services, women are traveling south to Mexico for procedures that may be unsafe.
Planned Parenthood originally planned to file a lawsuit Monday to attempt to force the city to issue the proper paperwork, but Skaddan said Monday afternoon the group decided to delay the filing until at least Tuesday following exchanges with the city attorney, who, she said, asked the group to wait. The city attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Fusion.
"I'm disappointed that we're having this much difficulty," Walsh said, "providing reproductive healthcare for the men and women of Imperial Valley."
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.