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Recently I’ve been asked why San Diego should elect a pro-choice mayor. After all, mayors run city departments, manage the municipal budget, and (hopefully) set a clear vision for our city’s future. They do not run any health services or enact heath care policy. So why should it matter whether San Diego’s next mayor is pro-choice?
The answer is that it matters greatly. During the past decade, anti-abortion rights groups have expanded their agenda to oppose contraception programs and women’s health services. In just the first half of 2011, 162 new laws were enacted which restrict women’s reproductive health care — the majority of which were attacks on preventive health care services and providers. While the media pays close attention to these issues as they are debated in Congress or in the state legislatures, little attention is paid to the important role city governments can and do play in this political struggle.
Three of the most important municipal issues for reproductive health providers are preserving access to health care facilities, being treated fairly in the permitting of new facilities, and knowing that public safety departments will be able to do their jobs without political interference. There are many cities in the U.S. where anti-choice mayors and council members have misused their authority to obstruct providers like Planned Parenthood. Fortunately, despite the efforts of some local politicians, San Diego has not been one of them.
In 1993, San Diego took a leadership role in protecting patient access to health care facilities, including reproductive health care providers, by adopting one of the first “bubble ordinances” in California. Back then groups like Operation Rescue were using aggressive tactics, including intimidation and harassment of patients and staff, and outright blockading of some San Diego clinics, to try and achieve on the sidewalk what they could never achieve at the ballot box: denying women their constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy.
The Bubble Ordinance, which is still protecting San Diego women today, reasonably balances the rights of protestors and the rights of patients, ensuring that First Amendment speech and a patient’s right to enter a health care facility are both protected through the creation of a 15-foot radius “bubble” of safe space around each patient. Protestors cannot enter the bubble without permission. San Diego still sees aggressive anti-choice protestors on the sidewalks, but this ordinance has protected health care access for nearly twenty years. Some groups would, given the opportunity, seek to weaken or repeal this important ordinance. We need a mayor who will support and enforce the Bubble Ordinance.
In other communities, anti-choice politicians have abused the fire inspection, zoning or building permit processes to make the opening of new reproductive health centers prohibitively expensive or practically impossible. Reproductive health care providers do not seek or expect special treatment, but they do demand fairness, and that means being treated no differently than other medical providers. All too often anti-choice ideologues in other cities use the discretionary permit process to add unreasonable requirements and extraordinary costs to clinic permits, or worse, they simply deny the permits without justification.
Finally, in all communities, the safety and security of patients, staff and facilities is sometimes threatened by extremists. At least once a week, somewhere in the U.S., a health center receives a direct threat or is attacked, a staff member is harassed or assaulted, or a patient’s privacy is violated. Even here in San Diego, health centers were once attacked with butyric acid, and other acts of vandalism still occur. Providers of reproductive health care need a mayor who will encourage cooperation between public safety departments and reproductive health care providers, putting public safety above dangerous political interference.
These are all specific, important roles that a pro-choice mayor plays in ensuring that women have access to a full range of reproductive health services, but there is yet another reason to commit ourselves to electing a pro-choice mayor: they often advance to even more powerful political responsibilities.
When San Diegans elected Pete Wilson to be their mayor in 1970, they couldn’t have known they were setting in motion a course of events which would ultimately lead to one of the greatest public policy successes in California history. But many of these early supporters were confident that Pete Wilson was a fiscal conservative who shared their moderate views on many social issues — including a firm commitment to a woman’s right to choose. Thus it was not surprising that 25 years later, then-Governor Wilson combined fiscal conservatism and pro-choice values to create the most successful family planning program in history: the California Family Planning, Access, Care and Treatment program, also known as FPACT.
Since its inception, FPACT has saved the state billions of dollars by making birth control and reproductive health services available to all Californians, regardless of their ability to pay. A recent study by the University of California, San Francisco, determined that for every dollar invested in FPACT, the state has saved $9.25 in health care and social service costs caused by unintended pregnancy. The program has reduced California’s teen pregnancy rate by an astonishing 50% in just over a decade. It is possible that California could have begun a program like FPACT without Governor Wilson’s leadership, but there is no guarantee. Indeed Wilson’s predecessor had steadfastly opposed all public funding for birth control. If San Diego voters had ended Pete Wilson’s career on November 3, 1970, then FPACT might never have happened.
When San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders gave the opening remarks at this year’s Planned Parenthood Annual Dinner, he spoke eloquently of the critical role the organization plays in protecting the health and safety of San Diegans. Wise words from a mayor who is himself rated as 100% pro-choice by the organization. The task for city voters in 2012 is to not just measure the candidates by their solutions to the high profile challenges facing our city, but by their personal commitment to the values which define our community, including being a pro-choice San Diegan. We must demand nothing less.
Jennifer Dreyer is Board Chair of Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest.