Planned Parenthood clinics, like this one in Pueblo, Colorado, are being closed, regardless of whether they offer abortions. And if you think that’s bad, just wait.
Nestled in a strip mall almost hidden behind the main drag of Highway 50’s fast food restaurants, gas stations, and neon-lit motels, the Planned Parenthood in Pueblo, Colorado, had gone about its daily business of medical exams, pregnancy and STD tests, dispensing birth control, and empowering women to make their own decisions concerning their reproductive health for nearly 50 years.
This clinic, which didn’t provide abortion services, often found itself picketed by protestors. The state’s so-called “bubble bill” meant they could not approach anyone within eight feet of a hundred-foot radius of its doors. So they stood with banners and signs on the corner of the highway every Saturday for years shouting to drivers as they waited at the stoplight.
Pueblo, in the state’s southern plains, was once an industrial stronghold, a company town of steelworkers who worked at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, known as CF&I. Like many company towns across the country devastated by the steel-market crash of 1982, Pueblo has never really recovered. This city, whose main employers are the town’s hospitals and nearby prisons, is one of the state’s poorest. Its teen birth rate, though on the decline, still ranks second in teen fertility rates in the state of Colorado, according to the Pueblo City-County Health Department.
For almost five decades, this small outpost of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, Inc. (which serves Colorado, southern Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming), was an important community resource for the women in this struggling Colorado city and surrounding county of approximately 160,000.
But on February 24, the clinic was forced to shut its doors. The property had changed ownership and the new owner did not renew Planned Parenthood’s lease. They gave no reason for this decision.
The clinic was both a symbol of reproductive freedom and a reliable and comforting outpost of care for many women. “Planned Parenthood was a beacon,” said Jordan Dalton, 35, who grew up in Pueblo and still lives here. “I first went to the clinic when I was 14 with very heavy periods that caused days of pain. Birth control pills helped regulate them. Later, when I was 24, they found a lump in my breast that turned out to be benign. My friends and I always went there, before and after we had insurance. They look at you with respect and understanding that a lot of doctors don’t have. And in a place like Pueblo where talking about STDs and birth control is a taboo, especially among teens, we all knew it was a place where we could get real information.”
Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains CEO and President Vicki Cowart said the organization had no choice but to close the Pueblo clinic. “We immediately engaged in an exhaustive process of investigating alternative locations and seeking support from area donors to help cover the costs of moving the health center, but we were unable to find an affordable alternative,” she said in a letter to the community.
Cowart also said that the notice came over the holidays, leaving Planned Parenthood to scramble and vacate and try to reopen in a very short time frame. Despite the many open office spaces around Pueblo, where “For Lease” signs are a common sight, the organization was unable to find a suitable, affordable space that would conform to Planned Parenthood’s stringent codes and requirements, she said.
“We are heartbroken to leave,” Cowart said. “Even though we served 1,500 women a year and this was one of our smaller clinics, every one of those women was important to us. When we make a decision to move, it’s well thought out and planned so that we move overnight, if we need to. There is no gap in service. If a woman came in on a Friday and had to return Monday, she would just go to the new location. Between the cost and the gap, we knew our patients would go elsewhere. We also knew it would be a huge financial drain to the organization. As hard as it was to make this decision, we had to make it.”
The closing of the Pueblo Clinic is symbolic of how Planned Parenthood and a woman’s right to access reproductive care is under siege all over the country. Planned Parenthood’s Rapid City, South Dakota clinic, one of two in the state, closed in December. Like Pueblo, it did not perform abortions, but listed abortion referral as one of its services.
Texas Governor Rick Perry and the Texas legislature, through HB2, a sweeping anti-abortion law, forced the closure of clinics in Texas in 2013–2014 and put others in jeopardy. In September, a fifth Wisconsin Planned Parenthood closed due to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s 2011–2013 budget, which eliminated over $1 million in state funding to Planned Parenthood clinics.
On February 26, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie bragged that he was “the first governor to ever speak at a pro-life rally on the steps of the statehouse in New Jersey and vetoed Planned Parenthood funding five times out of the New Jersey budget,” at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
In Colorado, though the so-called personhood referendum has been rejected by voters three times, anti-abortion bills continue to be brought to the State Capitol.
It is clear that the closure of the Pueblo Planned Parenthood is part of a national threat to undermine a woman’s access to reproductive health care, and especially a woman’s right to abortion. “People think Planned Parenthood will always be there,” Cowart said. “But we are being attacked and vilified every day. Planned Parenthood in Colorado doesn’t receive any public funding. Donors help us. I want folks to know we need support.”
Cowart said it was particularly gratifying to read a letter to the editor in The Pueblo Chieftain. The letter, which ran on Feb. 21, reads in part, “In a county already struggling with an inordinately high rate of unintended pregnancy and the consequences of those births, reducing options for safe, accessible, low-cost reproductive care is precisely the opposite of what should be happening. Even if your belief system doesn’t align with that of Planned Parenthood’s, it’s difficult to deny that their mission of self-determination with regard to managing individual fertility is a value we all should share.”
For many women in Pueblo, especially those who are low-income, getting to the nearest Planned Parenthood Clinic forty miles away in Colorado Springs, can be difficult. “When I first heard the news, I was upset, knowing that this is a service that helps low-income women,” said Colorado State Representative Daneya Esgar, a newly elected Democrat who represents Pueblo and whose family goes back in the town for generations. “Planned Parenthood understands Pueblo’s population. They know it’s devastating and they also know we have community health services and a health department making sure (these women) have health services.”
Though the community health clinic and the Pueblo City-County Health Department stand ready to help former Planned Parenthood patients—and any woman in need of medical care—losing this small humble storefront has still rippled through the community. “Symbolically, not having (Planned Parenthood) here is a big deal, said Rep. Esgar. “Everything they stand for, all of the services they provide are important. I remember in high school driving friends to Planned Parenthood because they didn’t want their parents to know they were on birth control,” she said. “I was forthcoming with my mom and had birth control from my doctor, but not everyone has that opportunity.”
Cowart said that the organization has not ruled out returning to Pueblo. “We’re a skinny system stretched thin,” Cowart said, adding that there is no Planned Parenthood at all on Colorado’s western slope or in southern New Mexico. There is only one clinic in the state of Wyoming. “We certainly won’t forget Pueblo, but we just might not be able to get back there soon.”
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