In Oregon-Idaho border town, planned abortion clinic receives little welcome from locals
Republicans outnumber Democrats three to one, and if you ask most people in town what they think of abortion, their first answer is that they’re pro-life. And yet, the new clinic in their town will likely be the only place offering abortions for about 200 miles in any direction.
A month after the U.S. Supreme Court decided to put states in control of laws governing abortion, Planned Parenthood is working to open a new clinic — in Ontario, an Oregon town on the Idaho border.
A trigger law in Idaho that bans abortions with extremely limited exceptions could take effect on Aug. 25, if it doesn’t fall to legal challenges. And out-of-state patients are expected to add significantly to the demand for abortions in Oregon, where the procedure remains legal without restrictions.
Even before the final Supreme Court decision was announced, Planned Parenthood had leased space in a building on Second Avenue here, with plans to open with a small staff by early 2023.
The small city of Ontario sits on a bend in the Snake River, just an hour’s drive from Boise. On any given block, you might find a cannabis shop, catering to Boise clientele, or a church serving the locals. There’s a Catholic Church, a Church of Latter Day Saints and several evangelical Christian churches, among others.
Republicans outnumber Democrats three to one here. And if you ask most people in town what they think of abortion, their first answer is that they’re pro-life. And yet, the new clinic in their town will likely be the only place offering abortions for about 200 miles in any direction.
Pending legal challenges, a near-total ban on abortion in Idaho will likely take effect later this summer. According to the Idaho legislation, abortion will only be allowed to save the life of “the mother,” or in cases of rape or incest. Patients will have to prove they’ve been raped by showing their doctor a police report.
Ontario residents expect the clinic to be a draw for people from out of town who need an abortion or who want to protest abortion, and many aren’t happy about either prospect.
“I understand that a young woman who finds herself pregnant and doesn’t want to be pregnant would seek an abortion. I do understand that,” said Andrew Peterson, a retired doctor and a leader of the Malheur County chapter of Oregon Right to Life.
“On the other hand, you have to understand clearly when you make a decision what you’re doing,” he said. “What you’re doing is killing an unborn child. You’re destroying your lives. So when you decide what you’re going to do as a society, you have to weigh those two things.”
Peterson came to Ontario from Boise 40 years ago to help provide high quality rural health care. He volunteers with the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization. He’s part of a small group of concerned locals who’ve met to discuss how to respond to Planned Parenthood opening a clinic in town. In front of the Catholic church on Second Avenue, they’ve put up banners with photos of babies and slogans like “All Life Is Precious.”
Peterson doesn’t think there’s much the town can do to stop the clinic from opening. And he does not want to ally himself, or his town, with hardline abortion opponents. In this community, where the culture is still steeped in farming and ranching traditions, bumper stickers and hyperbole are frowned upon.
“We’re not going to stand out there with a megaphone and try to shame women who are coming in,” he said.
Still, it troubles Peterson that Ontario is being used to advance what he sees as a pro-abortion agenda that was set by outsiders in Salem and Portland.
“Whether we want it or not, we weren’t asked. There was nobody [who] sent out a survey or… You’re the first person I’ve talked to that asked what we thought,” he said.
That’s true, said Anne Udall, the President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Columbia-Willamette. But she said that doesn’t mean her organization isn’t paying attention to local needs.
“Have we held public forums on opening a Planned Parenthood clinic in Ontario? The answer would be ‘no,’” Udall said. “Have we reached out and talked to a number of individuals to understand the needs of the community? I would definitely say ‘yes.’”
News that Planned Parenthood was renting space in town began to spread shortly after Democratic state legislators quietly wrote $15 million for abortion and reproductive health equity into a budget bill. Planned Parenthood is not seeking any of that state funding to open in Ontario; the clinic will be funded through private donations, according to Udall. Still, the timing made locals wonder if there was a connection.
Idaho women will be able to get an abortion at the Ontario clinic when it opens, in accordance with Oregon’s laws, Udall said.
But she said the clinic won’t only exist to serve women from Idaho who need to travel for an abortion. Eastern Oregonians need better reproductive health care options too, she said. The area has among the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections in the state. Before now, locals would travel to Boise or the Tri-Cities in Washington for reproductive care, birth control and abortion, Udall said. Now that the Boise clinic has closed – in part because of the coming abortion ban in Idaho – Udall said the need for services in the region had grown.
Just one person in Ontario has publicly spoken up in support of Planned Parenthood. Eddie Melendrez is a youth advocate and boxer. He’s the only Hispanic person on the city council in a town where roughly half of the 11,000 residents are Hispanic.
He said he didn’t plan on speaking about abortion, but he responded in the moment when a colleague on the city council referred to abortion as murder. He’s since reached out to Planned Parenthood of Oregon, but said the talking points they shared weren’t a fit for his community. As it is, he’s nervous that he’s said more than enough to upset people.
“When I go to the store, I always look around, like, who’s going to see me, recognize me, ‘Eddie’s the one that supports abortion,’ or say something like that,” Melendrez said.
He believes abortion is a decision that’s up to a woman.
And he sees a gulf between the slogans of people who oppose this clinic – like “all lives are precious” – and the fate of real kids in Ontario. Especially Hispanic children, who are now a majority.
Melendrez points out the public pool on Fourth Avenue, across the street from the future Planned Parenthood location. Kids play at a splash pad next door, but the pool itself is empty. It’s been closed for 14 years, due to lack of community support and funding.
And paying for a pool is just a symbol of what Melendrez sees as a larger problem. One part of his last job was trying to find host families for runaways and homeless kids.
“I would reach out to the churches, community organizations, people around the community,” he said. “And I could never get anybody to open up their home for a kid who needed it now, needed help in our community now.”
Other people in the community don’t oppose Planned Parenthood, he said. Some have texted him, thanking him for saying something. But nobody else has been willing to show public support for abortion rights.
On a recent spring day, shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the parking lots outside the Ontario Walmart and Home Depot were humming with activity. The big box stores draw people from both sides of the border – people from Idaho come because they can pay less in Oregon where there isn’t sales tax. Most of the women shopping there who spoke with OPB – none would speak on the record – described themselves as conservative, and pro-life. And, like most Americans, they had complicated opinions when it came to abortion.
One mother and her adult daughter, who were picking up supplies for a family wedding, asked to be anonymous to share their opinions about the proposed clinic. The two women, who are from Ontario, said it doesn’t bother them that women from Idaho may be be coming to their town for abortions.
“At least they’ll get services,” said the mother.
“And then things aren’t gone about the wrong way, or done illegally,” added the daughter.
If you try to ban abortions, women are going to attempt to do them on their own, they said.
“Then, two people get hurt.”
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