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Construction of Planned Parenthood clinic takes abortion foes by surprise

The Illinois facility faces a probe into whether it obtained building permits legally.

August 31, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

The building permits were issued to Gemini Office Development. The sign at the construction site said Gemini Health Center.

But as he watched the installation of bulletproof windows and security cameras at the office space in Aurora, Ill., a worker began to get suspicious. He told his priest, and the priest went to an anti-abortion group.

And late last week, the protesters went to work.

Gemini is owned by Planned Parenthood, which will operate the 22,000-square-foot clinic in the conservative Chicago suburb. The facility will provide birth control, gynecological exams, disease screening and abortions for women through the middle of their second trimester.

Furious residents packed a recent City Council meeting, taking turns at the microphone until nearly 2 a.m. They've been staging around-the-clock prayer vigils for more than a week. A demonstration Saturday drew 1,200 people.

The protests have prompted Aurora's mayor to hire an outside lawyer -- at $185 an hour -- to determine whether permits for the clinic were granted on fraudulent grounds. "We want to ensure our laws were properly followed," said Carie Anne Ergo, a spokeswoman for the city of about 170,000.

Steve Trombley, president and chief executive of the Chicago-area Planned Parenthood affiliate, said: "We are absolutely confident that everything we did was legal."

He said that Gemini, a limited liability partnership, was set up to mask Planned Parenthood's involvement to keep protesters away while the $7.5-million clinic was being built.

"It should be evident . . . why we did that," Trombley said. "This land was zoned for medical services. The city didn't ask what type of medical services."

He expects the clinic to open as scheduled Sept. 18.

But the mounting furor in Aurora has raised hopes among abortion opponents nationwide who aim to put Planned Parenthood under siege this fall from coast to coast.

Abortions make up a fraction of Planned Parenthood's work -- about 3%. More than a third of the group's services involve providing contraception.

Still, Planned Parenthood is the nation's largest abortion provider, terminating 265,000 pregnancies a year. It receives more than $300 million annually in public funds to subsidize non-abortion healthcare for poor women.

And its high visibility makes it a perennial target of anti-abortion activists.

This week, Colorado Right to Life began debating a strategy to block a Planned Parenthood clinic that is scheduled to break ground in Denver this fall. One of the options: picketing every subcontractor involved. That tactic delayed construction of an abortion facility in Austin, Texas, in 2003, though the clinic was eventually completed.

Separately, activists in 89 cities have laid plans for a 40-day "spiritual campaign" against Planned Parenthood starting late next month.

Participants in Sacramento; Sarasota, Fla.; Scranton, Pa.; Hilo, Hawaii; Lubbock, Texas; and Falls Church, Va., plan to distribute fliers, post yard signs and hold prayer vigils at all hours.

"Sooner or later, we've got to return some sense of decency to this country," said Joe Scheidler, president of the Pro-Life Action League, which is based in Chicago. "Maybe this is where it starts."

The demonstrations and vigils don't worry Roger Evans, senior director for public policy for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

"There's often lots of chest-pounding in anticipation of protests that turn out to be relatively uneventful," he said.

But he acknowledges that Planned Parenthood faces tough battles in legislatures and courts in several states, especially Missouri.

New clinic regulations there could shut down at least two of Planned Parenthood's three abortion facilities.

Another section of the same law bars Planned Parenthood's sex educators from teaching about contraception in the public schools -- something they've done regularly in St. Louis, Kansas City and other districts, often at the invitation of health teachers.

Social conservatives regard the Missouri sex education law as a model for other states. "We're fully convinced . . . that we're going to see more laws like this take effect," said Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Assn.

In Aurora, meanwhile, the protests continue in an effort to keep the bunker-like clinic from opening its doors. An anti-abortion youth rally is planned for Saturday.

For his part, Scheidler is gathering names of clinic employees. He plans to send activists to march outside their homes this fall, waving gory photos.

The siege, he said, has just begun.

--

stephanie.simon@latimes.com

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