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The conservative California county where Prop. 1 may mean nothing for abortion

SF Gate 11/7/2022 Sam Moore, SFGATE
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at a Planned Parenthood clinic in San Francisco on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. Clinton paid a visit to support abortion rights and California's Proposition 1. © MediaNews Group/East Bay Times V/MediaNews Group Via Getty Images

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at a Planned Parenthood clinic in San Francisco on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. Clinton paid a visit to support abortion rights and California's Proposition 1.

California’s Proposition 1 would safeguard the right to seek abortion services in the state’s constitution and is likely to pass in this week’s general election, according to polls

But when it comes to parts of California where accessing an abortion is still impossible for many, the ballot measure may make little difference. 

One of these places is Tulare County, a mostly rural swath of the San Joaquin Valley that sits halfway between Fresno and Bakersfield. Access to reproductive health care in the county came into national focus last spring, when a local Planned Parenthood was forced to abandon its plans to expand into a larger office after sparking fierce controversy among the community's deeply rooted conservative population. Despite Planned Parenthood never planning to offer abortions at that office, the procedure was at the center of the debate. 

The ordeal outlined the vast differences between urban and rural California when it comes to abortion — and which Californians face the highest barriers to accessing the procedure, regardless of statewide protections. 

"A lot of people think of California as a very pro-choice state. But California is also huge, both geographically and population-wise, and very, very diverse," said Usha Ranji, associate director of women's health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. 

In 2019, Ranji led a study on reproductive health care access in Tulare County, the findings of which noted significant roadblocks to seeking care in the area — geography and poverty being leading factors. 

When it comes to accessing abortions, residents must travel at least 50 miles to a provider in Fresno or Bakersfield. To the thousands of people in Tulare County living below the poverty line or in isolated, unincorporated communities, that may not be an option. 

And that's by design: Despite funding allocated to expand access to abortion services statewide, such as the recently passed Reproductive Justice Policy Priority Package, advocates in Tulare County feel that pushback from local conservative political leaders is what's keeping abortion providers at arm's length from most parts of the Central Valley. They fear this may continue even in a world where Prop. 1 passes.

"There's more funding opportunities that are starting to trickle down, but the thing is, now the conservative politicians are trying to defund that or move it around," said Michelle Rivera, program manager at ACT for Women and Girls, a Tulare County reproductive justice advocacy organization. 

In August, Fresno received $1 million in state funding designated for the city’s Planned Parenthood clinics — the closest abortion providers to a majority of Tulare County. This caused an uproar among local anti-abortion groups, ultimately leading to an attempt by Fresno’s mayor, Jerry Dyer, to veto the funding

“The matter of abortion brought hours of impassioned public comment and divisive public debate, causing further division in our community,” Dyer wrote in his veto message

The Fresno City Council later voted to override Dyer’s veto, but the dispute showcased just how contentious abortion is across the Central Valley, and how the few providers there often stand on precarious ground. 

This is part of why Ranji questions the efficacy Prop. 1 will have in Tulare County and other rural areas, should it pass in this week's election.

"Prop. 1 doesn't change the availability of services in a particular area," Ranji said. "There are no requirements for developing or expanding provider infrastructure so that it reaches more people throughout the state. For people on the ground in a place like Tulare, I don't imagine that they're going to get more access there immediately."  

What the amendment will do, she said, is enshrine someone's right to seek abortion services elsewhere — something that Rivera feels is significant in itself. 

"Even though we don't have much access here, it's still protected here more than it would be in Texas, or states like that," Rivera said. "I think overall, it's going to have a positive impact, because it will really cement that we're protected."

Rivera added that, while she's confident the ballot measure will pass statewide, she's concerned that Tulare County residents will largely vote against it — partly due to an imbalance of information on the topic. The only messaging most people in the area have received on Prop. 1, she said, came in the form of a massive billboard on Highway 99, which was paid for by anti-abortion group Tulare-Kings Right to Life and reads, "Vote No on Proposition 1! Abortion Up Till Birth."

"This is the majority of what Tulare County people are seeing on Prop. 1, with no other information on Prop. 1 or what it means," Rivera said. "This is pretty much all the rhetoric they're getting."

Tulare-Kings Right to Life was a key player in the Visalia Planned Parenthood debacle, and is known to support local "crisis pregnancy centers," religiously affiliated organizations that disguise themselves as reproductive health care clinics in order to dissuade people from seeking abortions. 

Representatives from the group flooded city council meetings in Visalia, where the Planned Parenthood in question is located, for weeks. The clinic’s current bandwidth is “a handful of patients per day,” three days per week, according to news coverage of the debate.

The expansion was going smoothly until the owner of an adjacent shopping mall sent a letter to the Visalia Planning Commission, stating that “the typical demonstrations which occur outside of Planned Parenthood” would impact nearby businesses. The letter and public hearing that followed alerted the community to the clinic’s planned expansion, causing groups like Tulare-Kings Right to Life to spring into action. 

Ultimately, after a fierce monthlong dispute involving voices from all sides of the controversy, the developer that proposed Planned Parenthood’s expansion pulled out of the project in an effort to “help restore decorum vs. press the issue further.” 

Rivera said that representatives from Planned Parenthood told her they’re hoping to try expanding again next year, this time in a different location. She added that coalitions in conjunction with the organization are forming with a focus on expanding access in Tulare County. 

“They really want to build stronger support and a group of folks organizing for the issues that we would like to see next year, especially against the opposition,” Rivera said. 

Rivera is hopeful that when Prop. 1 likely passes, more people will join in on the effort that Planned Parenthood, ACT and other organizations across the valley have spent years fighting for. 

"I think with more protections, and continuous work, opportunities will open to really highlight the work that we're doing," Rivera said. "I'm glad that people are starting to realize, like, hey, we need more access here. I'm beginning to see that more and more people want to join in on the advocacy and really shift the dialogue here."

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