Clinic Fire Deals Blow to Abortion Access on California-Arizona Border

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Members of a Southern California community are grappling with a devastating blow to critical abortion access after a major fire engulfed a Planned Parenthood clinic in the early morning hours of August 15. Located in El Centro, Planned Parenthood’s Imperial Valley Homan Center is the only abortion provider in greater Imperial County. While the facility had been a staple for care in the region since it opened in 2015, it became a safe haven for out-of-state abortion patients following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson ruling in 2022, which overturned Roe v. Wade.

“It’s a drastically medically underserved area already, so our services really were essential to the community here,” Sandra Duran, director of communications for Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, told The Intercept. “We had patients coming to this health center from Arizona, from neighboring states, and it really became such a beacon of hope for so many.”

Bordering Mexico to the south and Arizona to the east, Imperial County is home to both the arid Colorado Desert and a severe medical desert. The rural county has one of the highest teen birth rates in California, and the loss of the Imperial Valley clinic leaves El Centro residents without another abortion provider for roughly 90 miles. The region has the second-lowest median income of any California county, with 17.3 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. The U.S. Census estimates that 86 percent of the county’s population is Hispanic or Latino.

“Maternal healthcare in El Centro is pretty bleak,” Eleanor Grano, a reproductive rights advocate who grew up in the city, wrote in a message to The Intercept. She noted that the El Centro Regional Medical Center closed its maternity ward in January, consolidating with a hospital about 15 miles away.

“We see a lot of patients who are low-income. We see a lot of patients who don’t have health insurance,” said Duran. “We see a lot of patients where Planned Parenthood is their primary source of health care, who do not have anywhere else to go to get access to basic health care services.” 

Some of these patients are also clients at WomanHaven, a domestic violence response agency in El Centro that provides emergency shelter and legal assistance to survivors. WomanHaven’s executive director, Gina Vargas, called Planned Parenthood “a great need in the community.”

Vargas noted that, as a facility located in a border town, WomanHaven sees many domestic violence survivors who lack documentation. “One of the common fears is that when they do have children, they’d be stripped of them,” Vargas said. “So they endure the abuse for a longer period of time, because they’re not informed of what their choices are. A lot of them are not allowed to take care of their health or reproductive care, because that abuser also holds that control over them.”

Duran, of Planned Parenthood, said that the facility had seen a substantial increase in out-of-state patients since 2022, particularly due to the lack of reproductive health care access in neighboring Arizona, where abortions are currently banned after 15 weeks.

The fall of Roe subjected Arizona residents to several confusing legislative shifts regarding the status of abortion care. Arizona providers initially halted abortion services after the Dobbs decision out of concern for a 2021 “personhood” law that granted legal rights to unborn children. Services restarted in July 2022, when a federal judge ruled the law could not be used to levy criminal charges against abortion providers. In December, after another protracted legal battle, an appeals court struck down a Civil War-era law that would have enacted a near-total ban on abortion in the state.

The Calexico Chronicle, an Imperial Valley news outlet, reported that fire crews were dispatched to the Planned Parenthood around 1:45 a.m. on Tuesday. The blaze had begun in a pile of items donated to the Salvation Army Thrift Store, which shares a fence line with the clinic.

“At this time, we are unsure of the cause of the fire and are working with officials to complete a full investigation,” Darrah DiGiorgio Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, said in a statement. While the Imperial Valley clinic is closed, Planned Parenthood is directing patients who need in-person services to other clinics in San Diego and Riverside counties, while continuing to provide gender-affirming care through telehealth.

Although the cause of the fire is unknown, the loss of the clinic is a stinging reminder of another recent fire at a Southern California abortion clinic. On March 13, 2022, Planned Parenthood’s Costa Mesa Health Center in Orange County was firebombed with a Molotov cocktail. Last month, charges were announced against a third man for his alleged involvement in the attack. “Officials allege that Batten, along with two other men, including a U.S. marine, conspired to attack a women’s health clinic because it had provided reproductive health services,” The Guardian reported.

A report from the National Abortion Federation found a “sharp increase” in violence directed at abortion clinics last year, including arson, burglaries, death threats, and invasions. While President Joe Biden’s administration has prosecuted some of this anti-abortion extremism under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances, or FACE, Act, it has also used the same federal law to crack down on reproductive rights advocates. Earlier this year, the Justice Department announced FACE Act charges against four abortion rights activists for allegedly spray painting a crisis pregnancy center: a type of facility that claims to offer reproductive health services but disseminates misleading, anti-abortion information.

The Imperial Valley Planned Parenthood itself faced opposition from anti-abortion groups. The clinic opened amid substantial pushback and was initially only able to provide non-abortion services, as El Centro’s fire chief declined to sign off on a fire safety clearance. The clearance was granted after Planned Parenthood sued the chief and the city of El Centro. 

“We’ve seen some really tough times. And unfortunately this is just another dark day in those times,” Duran said. “But we’re absolutely committed to rebuilding in the community. … This absolutely will not stop us from fulfilling our mission and getting the people the care that they need.”

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