Inside the fight for a new abortion clinic in one California city

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March 15 (Reuters) - As soon as he learned abortion provider Planned Parenthood wanted to open a new clinic in the central California city of Visalia, resident Rod Greenfield wrote to all five city council members and urged them to deny the permit.

Another area resident, retired public health official Merrilyn Brady, began mobilizing supporters of the proposed clinic, which aimed to provide primary care and abortion services in a part of the state where both are in short supply.

In handwritten letters, emails and telephone calls, more than 200 people shared their opinions about the clinic, communications obtained from the city show. For two months, residents of Visalia, a city of 140,000 in the conservative San Joaquin Valley, along with nearby communities, attended crowded city council meetings.

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"This proposal will bring shame to our city," opponent Jaime Zamora wrote in an email in early February.

"Expanding health care is crucial," supporter Linda Collishaw argued in another email.

The fight over 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 proponents are scrambling to expand services in states such as California and Illinois, where reproductive rights are enshrined in local laws, while conservative states including Texas, Missouri and Florida move aggressively to limit access to the procedure. read more

The deeply conservative U.S. Supreme Court will rule this spring on a Mississippi law outlawing 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 prior court legalized it in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

If that happens, battles like the one in Visalia will become more common, predicted Wynette Sills, director of the anti-abortion group Californians for Life.

"Once it moves from being a federal issue and becomes a more state-by-state dynamic, I think we’ll see polarization even within California," she said.

PARKING AND PROTESTS

In Visalia, patients seeking to terminate a pregnancy at Planned Parenthood are referred to clinics an hour away in Fresno and Bakersfield.

Looking to expand beyond their small existing clinic, and eventually provide abortions and abortion pills in Visalia, Planned Parenthood leaders spent about six years searching for a new site, said Stacy Cross, president of the Planned Parenthood chapter that includes much of central California and Nevada.

Last year, a property owner they were working 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 off the application 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 his nearby tenants, which included Hobby Lobby, Regal Cinemas, Marshalls and Bed Bath & Beyond.

He also complained that protesters of Planned Parenthood would disrupt the nearby businesses.

After the planning commission approved the project, Paynter filed a formal appeal to the city council. He declined further comment when reached by Reuters.

Local furor grew when anti-abortion group Tulare-Kings Right to Life learned about the proposed clinic. The group asked residents to voice their opposition at city council meetings.

"We are standing up against this organization and being 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 contraceptive and sexual health care to a local community college more than 20 years ago.

"I am so upset with the way conservative people, especially the far right, look at this," she said in an interview. "If we had open access and better education around sexual health, we wouldn’t be seeing the abortion rate that we see."

DIFFICULT ROAD AHEAD

Cross and her team worked to persuade the city to support the clinic, speaking with council members and emphasizing the objective of providing more primary and sexual health care.

But days before a scheduled public hearing, Cross concluded the plan would not win support from a majority of the council. Reluctantly, she withdrew from a deal to purchase the Mooney Boulevard property.

Even so, an impassioned discussion about the proposal ran for nearly two hours at last week's city council meeting. Opponents vowed to fight any new locations.

In an interview, city councilwoman Liz Wynn declined to say how she would have voted. She said she expected the city would help the reproductive rights organization find a more discreet site for a new clinic.

The four other council members did not respond to requests for comment.

Cross said the city has sent a list of potential locations, but she is prepared for a difficult road ahead.

"California is the most progressive state as far as reproductive healthcare in the entire country," she said. "But even within this state there are pockets like Visalia that are making it challenging."

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Reporting by Sharon Bernstein Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Aurora Ellis

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