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After the Fire--a Chill : The Torching of Bakersfield's Only Abortion Clinic Leaves City With Fewer Options, Greater Fears

October 11, 1993|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bakersfield's rude awakening occurred the morning after the fire, when the city that thinks it doesn't believe in abortion realized it was a city where abortion was no longer available.

Switchboards at Kern Medical Center, a county health facility, were flooded with calls from women searching for an alternative to the gutted clinic.

Counselors at the city's 12 high schools were booked solid in closed-door meetings with teen girls--and in some cases, their boyfriends--who had planned to get secret abortions at the clinic.

Kern County, with Bakersfield at its heart, has the highest pregnancy rate for 10-to-14-year-olds in California, and the fourth-highest rate for all other teens--and it is rising. The Kern County health department reports there were were 16.2 live births per thousand teen-agers in 1991, up from 15.5 per thousand in 1991. The agency has no statistics on teen-age abortions.

The morning after the fire, 17 chairs in the waiting room at the Bakersfield Planned Parenthood were filled with "refugees" from the burned-out clinic, which had provided a wide range of women's health services, including cancer screening and birth control.

No matter where they went, or to whom they spoke, women in Bakersfield who wanted to terminate a pregnancy were told it could not be done in town. The nearest places were Fresno, Ventura, or Los Angeles--each about two hours away by car.

No big deal, you might think. Just hop in your car and go. But you'd be wrong. As one school official, who requested anonymity, explained: "Bakersfield is in a time warp. For many, the outside world never penetrates. And for these people, Los Angeles seems as far away as Europe does to me or you. It's inconceivable to them that they would be able to arrange such a trip for such a purpose."

When calls didn't taper off as expected at Kern Medical Center, officials placed an ad in the Bakersfield Californian, saying that the facility does not do elective abortions--i.e., abortions not considered medically necessary--under any circumstances for anyone.

A Kern Medical Center official, who did not want his name used, said the hospital performed elective abortions until 1989 (a year in which local abortion foes stepped up their protests).

"That year, the chairman of the ob/gyn department was replaced and the hospital policy was changed. Our faculty physicians decided abortion was against their moral values. The new chairman decided we would no longer do the procedure. He is a fertility specialist and it goes against his grain. Since 1989, we've been referring those cases to Family Planning Associates. In fact, almost every ob/gyn in town referred their elective abortion cases there. Until the fire it was no big deal."

Since the fire, phones to Family Planning Associates have been hooked up to its Fresno branch. When reporters phone, they are told, "No one here will talk to the press. We are instructed to hang up." And they do.

And, it seems, anyone in town who works for a health-care facility, from telephone operators to administrators and physicians, is afraid to speak on the record. The same goes for county health officials, school officials, and even people on the street who seem eager to discuss the fire and the issues surrounding it, but seem even more frightened of repercussions if their views become known.

The director of a community health-care facility that offers pregnancy testing, obstetrics and gynecological care but does not perform elective abortions, declined to talk to a reporter. Finally, after several calls, an associate of the director took the phone and said: "Who knows where the nuts are, and what they will do next? We do not want our clinic name even mentioned in a newspaper article that uses the word abortion. We don't want trouble here."

Thomas Jones, superintendent of the Kern High School District, politely declined to discuss abortion as it relates to pregnant teen-agers in his schools, because "We, as a school district, have no policy on that. It is an issue very deeply dividing our community."

He agreed to permit interviews with school guidance counselors, provided that the names of the school and the counselor were not used, and that the identities were in no way recognizable.

The educators interviewed say they are afraid--for themselves and for the pregnant children whom they counsel, who already have problems enough. Those who choose abortion may be confronted with no access to transportation, no access to a phone from which they can make long-distance calls to clinics in other cities, perhaps no one to talk to about their plight--or all the above.

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