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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

"We are an oil, farming and industrial community with a high transient population," says one counselor. "We have a good many poor students, some of whom have abusive parents or parents on alcohol or drugs. Some students don't even have a home to go to at night, and no one to help them make such a big decision about whether to have the baby or not--except for school counselors like us.

"We give them the name of three medical facilities in town, where they can get birth-control information and, hopefully, some good guidance on their options."

"It sounds simple, if you don't know the reality," says another counselor. "But the truth is that kids who are accidentally pregnant and don't feel ready for a baby are in a tragic position now that the clinic has burned down.

"Even if they learn where abortions are available, they may lack the ability to obtain one. Many students--freshmen and sophomores especially--don't have licenses or cars or friends with cars. It is even difficult for them to get into town, let alone find someone to drive them to another city," the counselor says.

"And what do they tell their parents if they disappear for a whole day? And where do they get the money for all this? Most of our kids would never tell their parents they're pregnant, unless they decide to have the baby.

"Before Family Planning Associates burned, it was difficult enough for kids who decided on abortion to arrange it. But most managed somehow. Now, we fear there will be tragedies because they can't get to Fresno, Ventura or Los Angeles--they haven't the skills and capability to find a way--and we are frightened of what they will do to themselves."

In Bakersfield, these educators say, it's mostly the rich kids who swiftly and secretly get abortions. "They feel empowered, that they have control over their own lives; they want to graduate high school and go to college. They have friends or family members with a car and cash. They find a way." Many poor kids don't want abortions, the counselors say, either out of religious conviction, a desire to have something that really belongs to them, or a lack of belief in their own futures. And perhaps just as often, the counselors say, these teens don't get abortions because they just can't put all the pieces of the puzzle together before it's too late.

Stephen Hanson, a physician assistant and manager of Bakersfield Planned Parenthood, is one of the few people in the city willing to talk for the record. His facility does \o7 not \f7 perform abortions, he emphasizes, but nonetheless has been subjected to threats, and round-the-clock security has been "beefed up since the fire."

"The fire created a great crisis," he says, because the burned-down clinic offered health services for low-income and often uninsured women who can't get those services anywhere else.

"Along with cancer screening, birth control and other preventive health measures, FPA did tubal ligations and sterilizations, which we do not do," Hanson says. "Now there's a tremendous barrier of time and distance for these women. To people with a car, insurance, and cash, it doesn't mean a thing. For a person who has none of those things, it is insurmountable."

While Hanson spoke with a reporter, his waiting room was filled with giggling teen-age girls who had apparently car-pooled from various outlying areas so they could take their pregnancy tests together.

Of six girls in one group, only a 15-year-old was pregnant. She told a reporter she did not believe in abortion, that she would have the baby, and she hoped her parents would help her care for it. "Of course, they know nothing about it." Her friends said they would not consider abortion if they'd turned up pregnant, either. "No one here thinks it's right," said one of them.

A 16-year-old girl who turned out to be pregnant saw only one option. She already has one child, she said, and could not care for another.

Will she consider abortion, though there's no place to get one in town?

"Of course I will. If I can't get one, I'll try to do it myself."

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