Imperial County Divided Over Region's First Planned Parenthood Clinic
The vast majority of Californians support unrestricted access to abortion and comprehensive sex education in schools.
But not in Imperial County, where religious groups have tried to prevent the region’s first Planned Parenthood clinic from opening.
Despite considerable opposition, the clinic is now providing care, but only on a limited basis.
New clinic opens
The new Planned Parenthood clinic sits right next to a Thai restaurant in El Centro. The clinic’s waiting room is decorated in pastel colors. All of the signs are in English and Spanish.
The clinic has six exam rooms, and offers testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Maykent Salazar, who works as a promotora, or health educator, for Planned Parenthood, goes door-to-door in Imperial County telling people about the services that are available.
Salazar said family planning isn’t usually discussed around here.
“ ‘Cause there’s no access," she said. "I mean, we have no clinics where people can talk about what they feel or what they think. It’s just taboo. It’s there, but no one talks about it.”
Salazar said people in Imperial County should have the same access to care as any other Californian.
“I think we in the Valley all deserve the right to choose what we want to do with our bodies and with our lives — that involves choosing what contraceptives we want to use, choosing if we want to have a baby or if we don’t want to have a baby, and when do we want to have him," she said.
Block that clinic
But Planned Parenthood opponents have a totally different view.
And at this week’s meeting of the El Centro City Council, opponents gathered outside and made their voices heard loud and clear.
Religious groups held what they called a “baby shower for life.” They collected donations of diapers, baby clothes, and set up anti-abortion displays.
Lisa Owens, who works with a Christian ministry called Woven, knows some people believe in a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.
“But that’s not what the Bible says," Owens said. "The Bible says that God gives life and he takes life. And he’s the only one that can, and should."
Amen to that, said Chris Nunn. He’s a minister at El Centro’s Christ Community Church.
Nunn has urged local lawmakers to keep Planned Parenthood out of the area.
He said there’s nothing wrong with a new clinic coming to town.
“But Planned Parenthood kind of disguises itself as a clinic, and tries to come in under the guise of a clinic, in order to perform abortions, and prey on our young women," Nunn said. "And that’s really what we have a problem with.”
Opponents like Nunn want the El Centro City Council to nullify a recently approved transfer agreement between the clinic and El Centro Regional Medical Center. Such agreements are standard between clinics and hospitals. They allow clinic patients and their records to be transferred should they suddenly need a higher level of care.
Nunn said the agreement is discretionary.
“And that’s what we’re saying is that here in the community, that is 70 percent pro-life, is it prudent for our city-owned hospital to agree to a transfer agreement, that their constituents, by and large, would not agree with," Nunn said.
City says it's doing the right thing
Opponents may not agree with it, but El Centro has no legal right to deny the transfer agreement. That’s the opinion of an independent legal review the city recently obtained.
El Centro City Manager Ruben Duran said he’s familiar with opponents’ views. After all, in such a small town, he knows most Planned Parenthood critics personally.
Nonetheless, Duran said he and other city officials are doing the right thing.
“Actually, this goes back to the Reproductive Protection Act," Duran said. "It says that abortions are allowed in this state, and they are a protected right in this state. We’re following the law.”
Planned Parenthood sues city
But not exactly, argues Planned Parenthood.
For now, the clinic can offer all of its services in El Centro except abortions. And it's only allowed to operate 20 hours a week.
That’s because while the city has issued an occupancy permit, the city’s fire chief has refused to sign off on the clinic’s final fire safety clearance. The chief said it should be reclassified as an outpatient surgery center, which would require a pricey fire suppression system.
The city says it’s seeking guidance from the state on this issue.
But Planned Parenthood said it's fed up and is suing the chief and the city. It’s asking a judge to compel the chief to issue the final permit.
Teen pregnancy problem
In the meantime, 21-year-old Ariana Gonzalez believes Imperial Valley really needs Planned Parenthood.
She grew up in El Centro. Gonzalez is expecting her second child; she had her first when she was 16 and still in high school.
Gonzalez said it’s about time someone taught local teens the facts of life.
“I think education is the key factor in changing behaviors, " she said. "If you don’t know, then what’s to prevent you from going out and having unprotected sex?”
That’s a big problem in Imperial County, where the teen pregnancy rate is 70 percent higher than the statewide average.