Between the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of constitutional protections for abortions and the addition of Proposition 1 on the upcoming ballot in California, a San Clemente councilman said he saw the opportunity for his city to take a stand to “protect the sanctity of life.”
The San Clemente City Council was set to consider a resolution later this month that declares the city a “sanctuary for life where the dignity of every human being will be defended and promoted from life inside the womb through all stages of development in life up and until a natural death.”
But what some on the council see as an opportunity is also a point of controversy, one in which city officials would be diving into a topic that has roiled the nation for decades. And on Friday, after a special call by the mayor, the city announced that the council will debate the idea during a special meeting on Saturday, Aug. 6.
If passed, the resolution could lead to a follow-up city ordinance that would enforce a ban on abortion procedures within the city limits, said Councilman Steve Knoblock, who authored the resolution. Such an ordinance would run counter to state law. But, for now, Knoblock wants San Clemente’s resolution to send a message “recognizing the full humanity of the pre-born life and human life and to protect and defend that.”
“We know since Roe vs. Wade, 62 million deaths occurred,” he said. “That’s a stack of babies 4,000 times higher than the Empire State building. The purpose of government is to protect life.”
A draft of Knoblock’s resolution says the City Council “considers life to begin at conception” and “stands against the establishment of Planned Parenthood health centers or any other clinics where abortions are performed.”
Such a resolution, however, would simply reflect an opinion by a majority on the city council. It’s unclear if the city can ban a provider of a legal health service. The closest Planned Parenthood clinic to San Clemente is in Mission Viejo, a few miles up the 5 freeway.
The resolution — scheduled for discussion by a council comprised of two women and three men — doesn’t have language on enforcement. But it would signal official city support for a ban on abortions except in cases where the mother’s life is at stake or the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.
San Clemente Mayor Pro Tem Chris Duncan said the resolution has caused concern within the community. He said this topic has drawn more email responses from residents than any other that he’s handled during his two years on the council. Most of that communication has been against the proposed resolution.
Duncan said he is not taking an official position yet but he said “there are some troubling aspects and legal questions raised” which he plans to get clarity on from the city attorney.
“I don’t think the majority of residents in San Clemente … want government taking away their long-held rights to control their body,” said Duncan, a Democrat running to represent the 74th Assembly District. “We saw that with the vote in Kansas the other day.”
National abortion fight gets local
The back-and-forth in San Clemente is part of a larger national conversation that’s grown louder since June, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and left the issue of abortion to individual states. Since then, at least 13 states have moved to ban or restrict the procedure, with more expected to do so by the end of this year. Many other states, including California, have passed laws to expand access to abortion and back a woman’s right to choose.
Earlier this week, voters in Kansas — a state that preferred Donald Trump over Joe Biden in the 2020 election by about 15 points — overwhelmingly chose to uphold abortion rights protections in the state constitution.
“This vote makes clear what we know: The majority of Americans agree that women should have access to abortion and should have the right to make their own health care decisions,” President Joe Biden said on Wednesday, Aug. 3, a day after the vote in Kansas.
Knoblock said he hasn’t paid attention to what other groups or states are doing about abortion but, as a public servant, he believes he should bring the discussion forward. He added that he’s particularly concerned about Proposition 1, which if approved by state voters in November, would prohibit anyone in California from denying or interfering with a person’s reproductive health care, including any decision a person might make about abortion and contraception.
California Right to Life opposes the amendment, contending it’s “about much more than abortion and contraception.”
Mary Rose Short, the organization’s outreach director, warned the language of Prop 1 — particularly the words “interfere with an individual’s reproductive freedom in their most intimate decisions” — is too vague. Its passage, she said, could lead to gender transition services for minors without parental consent or a lack of regulation over surrogacy services, in vitro fertilization, or purchasing eggs or sperm.
‘All it takes is one city’
Should San Clemente declare itself a “sanctuary for life,” it wouldn’t be the first to do so. In fact, several dozen cities, working with Right to Life of East Texas, have passed resolutions or ordinances that actually outlaw abortion procedures within city limits.
Texas is among the states banning abortion. The state also has passed rules that allow citizens to sue clinics or anyone else who “aids or abets” a legal abortion outside of Texas.
According to Mark Lee Dickson, the director of Right to Life of East Texas and founder of the Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn Initiative, 50 cities — mostly in Texas — have passed ordinances banning abortion.
“Cities should do everything in their power to protect residents of their communities — both the born and the unborn,” Dickson said in an email.
But Dickson noted that San Clemente, in California, would be pushing against state law.
“In the same breath, cities must also be smart about the laws they enact to protect their residents,” he said.
“Gov. Newsom has been very clear that he wants California to be a sanctuary for abortion access,” Dickson added.
“This leaves the people of California who believe in protecting innocent human life having to make a decision: Will San Clemente be a ‘sanctuary for abortion,’ or will the good people of San Clemente do everything in their power to fight against it? All it takes is one city who is willing to go first. All it takes is one city which fears God more than they fear Gov. Newsom.”
San Clemente’s draft resolution does, in fact, invoke religion.
“We believe that life is God-ordained and God is the author and finisher of every life,” the resolution states. “No matter if at the beginning or at the end. We stand in agreement that, as a City Council, we will protect and sustain life at every stage. As we ask God to bless America, we first have to honor and respect God. We feel that we do both by protecting life and passing this resolution.”
Knoblock said he recognizes some in the community might be put off by the religious reference. But he maintained that God is frequently referred to by lawmakers nationwide.
“When the president gives a speech, he ends it with: ‘May God Bless America, may God protect our troops,’” he said. “For people to be offended by God, one day we’ll all be accountable to him.”
Community, council divided
News of the proposed resolution ignited a firestorm in San Clemente — and across Southern California.
While San Clemente’s city clerk has not officially posted the resolution, a draft version has made its way around town. Many are enraged by it, while some support it.
“I believe in the right to life. But I can’t support a resolution to eliminate a woman’s access to health care,” said Assemblywoman Laurie Davies, R-Laguna Niguel. “It’s for the state to decide, not city by city. I’d like to see them table this.”
San Clemente Mayor Gene James, who last month seconded the motion to discuss the topic at the upcoming council meeting, said he’s heard from residents, and even groups outside of town, who are outraged by the proposal. He said the number in support of the resolution is only a fraction of those who oppose it.
“When I saw the resolution, I was appalled,” James said. “He uses words like ‘condemn;’ (and makes) multiple references to God. And the medical aspect of it is completely erroneous.
“I’m a pro-life Republican, but this is beyond the pale,” James added. “I would have been happy to support the resolution if it said: ‘We support the recent decision on Roe v. Wade because it returns the policing power to the state.’”
James is trying to find a way to undo the planned upcoming discussion. He tried to rescind his vote to second the discussion — even running the idea by the city attorney — and hoped Knoblock might reconsider. James called the special meeting for Saturday, Aug. 6.
“I ask that Councilman Knoblock, in the interest of unity, pull this from the agenda,” James said.
Meanwhile, Nichole Ramirez, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood in Orange and San Bernardino counties, said her group has been contacted by residents of San Clemente who oppose Knoblock’s proposal. She described Knoblock’s effort as an “obvious example of an extreme politician using his personal agenda.”
“It’s extremely alarming that he thinks he can make a personal health decision for many,” she said. “His information is completely inaccurate.”
Planned Parenthood plans to participate in a rally for women’s rights and access to health care services. The event is scheduled near the San Clemente Pier on Wednesday, Aug. 10.
Still, others, like Pastor John Randall of Calvary South OC in San Clemente, are cheering Knoblock on for saying abortion is not a political issue but a Biblical one.
“We believe life begins at conception and spiritual life begins at the cross,” Randall said.
Legal questions remain
Experts suggest San Clemente’s resolution would not be legal if it contradicts state law.
A city could make a policy decision — as seen with so-called sanctuary cities that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities — as long as it is not inconsistent with another law, said Lisa C. Ikemoto, a UC Davis law professor who specializes in public health and reproductive rights.
“It conflicts with state law,” Mary Ziegler, an incoming UC Davis law professor, said of San Clemente’s resolution. “It may soon conflict with state constitutional law. And so, unless there’s more ambitious lawyering than what has gone on to date, this is not likely going to have any kind of feet.”
“This seems to be just people putting themselves on the record that they don’t like abortion,” added Ziegler, an expert on reproduction and health care politics. “I don’t know if they intend for this to be more than just posturing.”
And beyond its legality, the resolution could have other implications.
“The messaging behind it might create some confusion to people living in Orange County or traveling to Orange County to seek health care services,” Ikemoto said. “That confusion itself might prevent people from obtaining abortion services.”