Twenty years after a local abortion clinic was torched in an unsolved case of arson, the practice remains a big issue in Bakersfield.
The city is in the early stages of developing anti-abortion resolutions for council members to consider, a move that comes after activists proposed an ordinance that would ban abortion and allow citizens "aggrieved" by the procedure to sue.
Although abortion continues to draw ire from a vocal group of citizens, it's hard to estimate how many abortions Kern County residents seek every year or how many are performed here. But state data shows that abortions in one category rose about 111 percent from 2006 to 2010.
Fee-for-service abortions for Kern residents funded by Medi-Cal, California's version of Medicaid, jumped from 617 in 2006 to 1,306 in 2010, according to The Californian's analysis of data from the state Department of Health Care Services. That was the largest percentage increase of any county in the state during that time frame, excluding those that had 30 or fewer abortions a year.
Right to Life of Kern County executive director Marylee Shrider dubbed the increase "disturbing." The figures are saddening, she said, because they don't represent all of the abortions that happen in the county.
"It really kind of justifies our existence here in Kern County," she said of her organization.
Abortion prevalence uncertain
Early on the morning of Sept. 20, 1993, a fire began at the offices of Family Planning Associates on Stockdale Highway. More than 5 gallons of gasoline had been poured along the clinic's east wall and the fire spread, destroying the facility and neighboring buildings, The Californian reported on the first anniversary of the blaze.
No arrests were made, and anti-abortion activists denied any connection to the crime. The case is open but the three-year statue of limitations has long since expired, said Anthony Galagaza, battalion chief and public information officer for the Bakersfield Fire Department.
Today, Family Planning Associates Medical Group continues to operate in an H Street facilier. Pedro Elias, a regional director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood, said Family Planning is Kern County's only abortion provider that his organization is aware of. Planned Parenthood does not provide abortion in Bakersfield but does refer patients to abortion services elsewhere.
A woman who answered the phone at the administrative offices of Family Planning said the company declined to comment for this report.
"(Access to abortion is) very difficult and very challenging for a woman," Elias said. "There's few (abortion providers) throughout the valley. Many times women have to travel two to three hours."
Comprehensive abortion statistics are hard to come by. Kirt Emery, health assessment and epidemiology program manager for the Kern County Public Health Services Department, said it's difficult to measure any health indicators such as abortion that aren't required to be reported by law.
"There is no law on abortion (data). There is no law on how many people are walking around with heart disease," he said.
Pinpointing why Kern's Medi-Cal funded fee-for-service abortions rose in the five years from 2006 to 2010 would require staffing and time to delve into the data, Emery said. Perhaps the recession caused a shift in the number of people who had health insurance, Emery said. Perhaps people who wouldn't normally have considered having an abortion changed their mind because they didn't have a job.
"There are all kinds of things that could change what's going on out there," Emery said.
Popping up in local politics
About a year ago, Tim Palmquist, administrator of LifeSavers Ministries, and his fellow anti-abortion activists began imploring the Bakersfield City Council to adopt a "human life" ordinance.
In addition to a home for women and support groups for those who are expecting, the group, which started in the 1980s, tries to maintain a presence outside the Family Planning Associates clinic when surgical abortions are being preformed and participates in 40-day vigils at the clinic twice a year.
Palmquist said the proposed ordinance would allow someone, most likely a family member, to sue if they are upset by an abortion. The plaintiff in such a suit "could be an abortionist, it could be the company," he said.
Palmquist submitted five drafts of the ordinance to the city. Council minutes from the last year show he repeatedly addressed the panel on the matter at public comment sessions. Palmquist said the big break came at the council's March 20 meeting when Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan asked that the ordinance be referred to the council's Legislative and Litigation Committee for review.
"We have seen God's hand guiding every step of this," Palmquist said.
At the May meeting, City Attorney Ginny Gennaro cautioned that the ordinance could put Bakersfield at risk of expensive lawsuits, and the committee voted unanimously to table the topic.
Council members Sullivan, Terry Maxwell and Russell Johnson comprise the committee.
Council members voted unanimously in favor of a motion by Johnson's directing the city attorney to draft a resolution.
"What I said was, 'Look, there's nothing wrong with us as a council stating our policy position that we can see unborns have a right to life in our community,' " Johnson told The Californian after the meeting.
Palmquist said his group is consulting with an attorney to tweak the ordinance to address those concerns.
Elias, of Planned Parenthood, took the ordinance to task after reviewing it in June. He wrote in an email that the proposal was not about prohibiting abortion but instead would ban birth control and expose doctors and pharmacists to lawsuits. Palmquist denied that the ordinance would impact contraceptive use.
While the anti-abortion ordinance is in limbo, the issue has taken a new turn as members of the city's Legislative and Litigation Committee directed Gennaro's office to draft two separate resolutions on the matter.
One resolution would be "something along the lines of having a policy statement that abortion is not favored by the City Council," Gennaro said.
The second resolution would support a draft proposal by Right to Life of Kern County that would require a woman seeking an abortion to have a non-invasive, abdominal ultrasound first.
"This will not require her to look at it," said Right to Life's Shrider. "This will require that the ultrasound be done, and that she be given the opportunity to look at it, and hear the heartbeat."
Shrider said her organization is in the mid-stages of drafting the bill but plans to have its proposal ready to seek the support of local state legislators in August.
Gennaro said the City Attorney's office has not received any potential legislation from Shrider's group. Each resolution first would go to the committee before potentially being forwarded to the City Council for a vote, she said.
"We have not started working on it," Gennaro said.
Gennaro said she intends to present the resolutions when the human life ordinance topic is up for discussion again.
-- Staff writer Theo Douglas contributed to this report.