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Now that clinic's open …
People on both sides of controversy look back on successes, failures
By Amy Boerema | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 10/7/2007 11:54 PM

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Planned Parenthood's controversial Aurora center opened last week in the full glare of the national spotlight.

After weeks of court battles, political debates and demonstrations by supporters and opponents, both sides in the bitter fight are claiming some level of victory.

Supporters point to the obvious: The facility opened, albeit a few weeks later than planned, at New York Street and Oakhurst Drive on Aurora's far east side.

The $7.5 million, 22,000-square-foot center offers numerous health services for women, including abortions, which is what thrust the debate onto a national stage.

"Some say this fight is just about abortion," said Steve Trombley, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood/Chicago Area. "But for (us), this fight was about providing a broad range of much-needed health-care services to the people in this community."

Opponents, meanwhile, claim victory because they helped delay the center's opening by raising questions about its permit process.

In doing so, they put up a fight that involved unprecedented numbers and intensity levels, members of both sides say.

The clinic's opening came at a high cost, opponents say, and earned Planned Parenthood a permanent "black eye" because of charges it misled city officials by obtaining building permits under the name of a subsidiary.

"All said and done, Planned Parenthood still has a public relations problem in Aurora," said Jim Sedlak, vice president of the American Life League, based in Virginia. "They're still known as the organization that snuck in under a phony name."

Whatever victories both sides may claim, they each concede their struggles will continue in courts of law and the court of public opinion.

The perfect storm

On a national level, the Aurora case was unique for several reasons that combined to create a "perfect storm of activism," said Pro-Life Action League spokesman Eric Scheidler of Aurora.

Clinic leaders applied to build their facility -- one of the nation's largest -- under the name of a subsidiary, Gemini Development.

They said they complied with all required public disclosures but tried to keep the project quiet so their workers wouldn't be harassed.

Leaders revealed the center's identity this summer, after it was already built.

Protesters, fresh off celebrating the closing of a west-side abortion clinic a year ago in Aurora, were outraged at what they saw as deception.

Anger was a big motivator. Chicago's Pro-Life Action League quickly mobilized its forces.

It teamed with area churches and reached out through e-mail, blogs and YouTube. Members called in help from national anti-abortion activists.

They supported youth leaders, who held their own rallies, and organized shifts to stay outside the clinic around the clock.

"They started to feel a sense of ownership and belonging right there on that sidewalk," Scheidler said. "That really drew people out to bigger events."

One rally attracted more than 1,000 protesters. Hundreds also spoke at city council meetings, urging aldermen to keep the clinic closed. Their allegations of fraud prompted officials to launch independent reviews of the clinic's permit process.

Those reviews concluded Planned Parenthood may have misrepresented itself, but it wasn't enough to deny it an occupancy permit. The clinic opened Tuesday.

But even national Planned Parenthood leaders acknowledged the intensity of the protesters.

"We are concerned that the struggles the Aurora center faced in opening are reflective of a growing battle against politics trumping health care," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Lessons learned

The clinic may have opened, but critics say their work will pay off in the long run.

"This has been absolutely galvanizing around the nation," American Life League's Sedlak said. "I get calls from leaders saying they want to do it like they did in Aurora."

Their message, opponents say, is Planned Parenthood isn't an invincible force, even if it has a center already built. And other towns can prevent clinics from coming in under different names, too.

"I think the attention we brought to this strategy will effectively disarm that weapon from their arsenal," Scheidler said.

Each time a clinic opens, Richards said, Planned Parenthood's biggest concern is how to protect the safety of clients and workers.

Officials, for example, say opponents have started to picket the homes of workers building a center in Denver.

"We have no regrets how we went about this process," Trombley said.

At the end of the day, Richards said, most women just want affordable health care, and that's why "our waiting rooms are always full and we have to continue to open more centers."

Though protesters outnumbered supporters publicly, allies realized their presence is also important, said Bonnie Grabenhofer, president of the Illinois National Organization for Women.

"The pro-choice community is a bit complacent, relying on the law," she said. "Speaking up is important."

Fight continues

Both sides agree on one point: The city could have handled the situation better, they say.

Clinic officials took Aurora to court in an unsuccessful attempt to open before the city's review into the permitting process was complete.

"Aurora's actions … are motivated solely by political opposition to the fact that Planned Parenthood provides abortion services," a statement from the clinic said at the time.

Protesters, meanwhile, are suing the city, alleging police harassed them during events.

They're now angry with Mayor Tom Weisner because he issued the clinic a permit without giving the full council a chance to discuss and vote on the matter once the review was done.

They have filed notice with the city's zoning board of appeals to challenge the permit process.

As far as Scheidler is concerned, the Pro-Life Action League's only mistake was "trusting Mayor Weisner."

The city defends its role, saying its review showed no legal basis for denying a permit.

"A lot of emotion surrounded this issue," Weisner said. "Our job as government is to try to follow the law."

Meanwhile, the abortion battles will continue, both on- and off-site.

A council meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday will be the first time people can weigh in since the center opened. Both protesters and supporters will gather at city hall beforehand. Already, 85 people have signed up to speak.

Many are coming to criticize or praise aldermen; others will urge officials to vote for or against a parental consent notice.

In the next week, Ald. Rick Lawrence said he may introduce a law requiring minors to get consent before receiving any medical treatment, including abortions.

The struggles will continue on-site, too. Clinic officials want the protesters, who have moved down a private drive across from their entrance, to be confined to the Oakhurst sidewalk.

A notice on their Web site reads, "Safeway/Dominick's is allowing anti-choice protesters to use their vacant lot in front of our clinic to harass patients seeking health care."

It urges supporters to call Dominick's, which owns the lot, to complain.

But protesters are just as adamant about their cause -- alerting potential patients of other options besides Planned Parenthood.

"We'll continue to have a prayerful presence," Scheidler said. "We knew we were in this for the long haul."