Inquiry Stalls Abortion Clinic

In Aurora, Ill., antiabortion activists, from left, Maria Villareal, Laura J. Smith and Carol Uhlarik say they are celebrating the fact that this Planned Parenthood clinic did not open as planned Tuesday in the Chicago suburb.
In Aurora, Ill., antiabortion activists, from left, Maria Villareal, Laura J. Smith and Carol Uhlarik say they are celebrating the fact that this Planned Parenthood clinic did not open as planned Tuesday in the Chicago suburb. (By Kari Lydersen -- The Washington Post)
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

AURORA, Ill. -- When Planned Parenthood wanted to open an abortion clinic in this Chicago suburb, its construction contractor opted not to disclose the purpose of the building when applying for city building permits.

Now, antiabortion activists are seeking to block the clinic on the grounds that Planned Parenthood deceived city officials.

Planned Parenthood spokespeople say the organization followed "the letter of the law" but acknowledge it tried to keep the clinic's identity under wraps during the permitting process because of a growing trend of abortion opponents using municipal zoning and permitting regulations to try to block clinics from opening. When Gemini Office Development, the contractor for the site, applied for permits for the 22,000-square-foot space, it at one point listed the tenant as "unknown" on city documents.

After the Chicago Tribune published an article in July revealing the identity of the building's tenants, protests erupted. Opponents of abortion rights launched a 40-day, 24-hour sit-in outside the building, and more than 100 of the activists spoke at an Aug. 28 City Council meeting.

In the face of the protests and charges of deception, city officials declined to issue a permanent occupancy permit pending an investigation. CarieAnne Ergo, a spokeswoman for Aurora, called the allegations "fairly serious" and said the mayor and council "felt they needed an independent third party to determine whether city processes were followed and if not, what the city's recourse is."

In recent years, antiabortion groups have also raised permit or zoning issues or organized boycotts to try to stop clinics in New York, Ohio, Texas, New Hampshire and Iowa, according to Planned Parenthood. But the Aurora battle is the most contentious and involving one of the largest facilities yet. The result is likely to have ramifications for both sides' tactics nationwide.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Sept. 13, Planned Parenthood argued that the city was making the permitting process political, and treating them differently than other businesses. A federal judge will decide Thursday whether the $7.5 million clinic can open on Friday, or remain closed pending an investigation into the permitting process.

Steve Trombley, Planned Parenthood Chicago Area president, argues that the investigation is biased in favor of antiabortion groups, because it is being carried out by a lawyer who formerly represented the local Republican Party and who was chosen by a City Council member publicly opposed to the clinic. The first investigator appointed by the Aurora mayor was removed after antiabortion groups complained that he had ties to a law firm that represented the city.

"Our position is this process is entirely politicized, entirely tainted, and really doing a disservice to our organization and the city of Aurora," Trombley said. "They've created an arbitrary process in response to our opponents, when we are offering a service that is constitutionally legal in America."

The protests have been spearheaded by a Chicago-based group called the Pro-Life Action League.

"A bunch of people's homes surround this location," said the league's executive director, Ann Scheidler. "They have a right to know what's going on there. Not only is abortion contentious, but there will be demonstrations all the time. Do people want to live with that? There were no public hearings like there would be with a bar opening where neighbors could say, 'I don't want this in my neighborhood. '"

The city got a court injunction to stop a planned Sept. 15 hours-long march through the residential area around the clinic. A federal judge ruled the protest, which drew about 800 people, could take place on a more limited scale.

Planned Parenthood says the Aurora clinic is sorely needed in a region with low access to reproductive health services and high rates of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancy. The Alan Guttmacher Institute ranks Illinois 46th nationwide in access to contraceptive services. With a fast-increasing population of more than 157,000, including about one-third Latino immigrants, Aurora is the second-largest city in Illinois.

"Throughout this entire controversy -- even being ground zero in the abortion debate -- we've had people calling downtown to get appointments," Trombley said. "The fact that people are trying desperately to get appointments even in the midst of this speaks volumes to the need in this community."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company