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Not in our backyard

Small conservative community resists overture by Planned Parenthood to establish a local killing center

Lancaster, Pa., is known for Amish barn raisings and family-style dining. With such a conservative image, it's not surprising that the county had no abortion clinic during the first quarter century after Roe vs. Wade. But in September 1998 the local newspaper splashed a banner headline on the front page: "Planned Parenthood to offer Abortions in Lancaster." In big cities like Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, such news would scarcely register. In Lancaster, concerned individuals began having breakfast strategy sessions at Lapp's Family Restaurant. They founded Lancaster United for Life, a grass-roots organization to "galvanize" a historically pro-life community-and 16 months after Planned Parenthood's announcement, babies have yet to be aborted in Lancaster County. Here's why:

  • Last November the Pennsylvania Department of Health inspected Planned Parenthood's Lime Street health center and found three "deficiencies." The first two glitches, an equipment problem and a lab certification, are supposedly surmountable, but the third is more difficult. According to state regulations, abortion clinics must have a transfer agreement with a nearby hospital in case complications arise from abortions. Since the abortion announcement, all four county hospitals have terminated or failed to renew their agreements with Planned Parenthood.
  • The hospitals did send letters to Planned Parenthood saying they would never deny emergency treatment to a patient in need, and Planned Parenthood sent those letters to the state, saying "we have met the state requirements." But Lancaster United for Life vice president Jim Huber, a former county commissioner, disagreed, saying, "This is simply one more effort by Planned Parenthood to get around the existing laws, laws that were put in place to protect women."
  • Area doctors raised concerns; 66 of the county's physicians took out full-page newspaper ads noting "Abortion is bad medicine." Family-practice physician Cary Campanella says of the out-of-town abortionist Planned Parenthood is prepared to bring in, "This is a physician about whom we know nothing. We don't know what kind of training he has or what his malpractice record is. He will not be subject to peer review. The first time these women meet him is when he pulls out his suction catheter." The argument is that, since Planned Parenthood has been secretive about the credentials of the abortionist to be hired, it would be bad medicine for any hospital to agree to treat his patients. Planned Parenthood spokesman Pat Brogan confirmed the potential abortionists are from outside the area, and added, "They are doctors whose sentiments we trust." The controversy has led to lawsuits against Planned Parenthood for building code and zoning violations. That Lime Street office is an innocent-looking brick house in a downtown residential district. Neighborhood children play in the center's parking lot; their parents have expressed concern over what could be going on inside. Since surgical procedures cannot be performed on properties zoned residential, neighbors have a strong case against Planned Parenthood. Many Lancaster residents display bumper stickers that say, "No Abortion Clinic in Lancaster"; a local printer donated 10,000. Ms. Brogan of Planned Parenthood says the bumper sticks mean, "We don't want women who need abortions in Lancaster." Local pastor Raymond Randolph, who has worked to build a ministerial alliance in defense of the unborn, says, "That is simply false." He points out that Lancaster has five crisis pregnancy centers, two homes for unwed mothers, and an adoption agency, so women contemplating abortion have many good alternatives from which to choose. Lancaster United for Life President Michael Geer calls Lancaster's past 16 months a clear "Joseph situation: What was meant for evil is turning out for good." Since Planned Parenthood announced its plans, ministries like Beth Shalom, a live-in discipleship program for unwed mothers, have seen a sharp increase in donations. Without even a concentrated petition effort, 28,000 people-about one of every 20 county residents-have signed a statement saying they don't want or need an abortion clinic in Lancaster. While the Clinton presidency seems to be squashing many pro-life efforts in Washington, Lancaster United for Life is proving that a community can stage its own battle. Mr. Geer says the group has no shortage of volunteers: "We have monthly meetings-they're not terribly exciting or compelling, we just sit down and plan the next thing we've got to do-but we have new people who keep coming in and saying they have to help. It's been amazing."

-Rebecca Ritzel is a World Journalism Institute fellow