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A New 'Ground Zero' in the Abortion Wars

By Dennis Byrne

In a huge tactical blunder, Planned Parenthood has managed to turn a Chicago suburb into "ground zero" in the abortion wars.

Planned Parenthood's decision to try to secretly open an abortion clinic in Aurora, Illinois exploded in its face when pro-life organizations discovered the subterfuge only weeks before the clinic was scheduled to open its doors. The attempted deception now has rallied pro-life groups from around the country to the cause and helped energize 40-day abortion clinic vigils in 80 cities.

No small part in firing up pro-life forces was Planned Parenthood's unabashed excuse for deceiving Aurora officials about the purpose of the clinic: Disclosure would stir up opposition, create ugly protest and ignite violence. One pro-life group, infuriated at Planned Parenthood's accusations of criminality and violence has threatened to sue for libel.

Planned Parenthood tried a similar ruse in Denver by secretly buying a city block for a $4.2 million clinic and offices. But before ground could be broken, the deception was discovered and the project now is mired in controversy.

In Aurora, Planned Parenthood managed to get its $7.5-million, 22,000-square-foot facility completed and nearly set for opening before its true purpose was unmasked. Instead of applying for applicable zoning, building and occupancy permits under its own name, Planned Parenthood used the name of a subsidiary, Gemini Office Development. All the city knew was that Gemini wanted to build and operate a women's health center on the site. Only after newspapers disclosed the hoax did Planned Parenthood admit that, yes, "only" 10 percent of the medical services provided at the center would be abortions.

Planned Parenthood arrogantly said it had to lie to the city and the public because of the inconvenience, disruptions and violence that supposedly would be caused by pro-life activists. As Steve Trombley, head of Planned Parenthood/Chicago area, explained in a letter to Aurora officials, justifying the deceitfulness: "Zealots" opposing the clinic "have a well-documented history of violence and criminal activity." In the letter, he cited a list of charges leveled against a pro-life group, in a suited filed a decade ago. He failed to mention that the suit twice had been thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court. Nor did he provide any evidence of criminal or violent activities by any of the current protesters.

The city launched two independent investigations into whether Planned Parenthood had violated its laws or regulations; a report by the lawyer heading the investigations is expected to be released today. [Monday] Clinic opponents say the city cannot legally issue an occupancy permit because not-for-profit groups, including Planned Parenthood, must meet certain disclosure requirements, such as public hearings and notification of residents within 250 feet of the project. None of that happened. Still, Planned Parenthood unsuccessfully sought a federal court order forcing the city to issue an occupancy permit, but the case remains open pending further developments.

Planned Parenthood has responded that the clinic was built as a part of a planned unit development, and thus is exempt from public notification requirements required by the city zoning ordinance. Whatever the legalities, for many opponents the issue is one of public trust, respect for the democratic process and compliance with the popular concept that government in all its activities must act with transparency.

Most remarkable is the defense made by pro-choice rationalizers of the intentional deception. Eriz Zorn, a Chicago Tribune columnist, for example, justified the "stealth" because "foes of abortion rights, longtime losers in the battle for public opinion, traditionally raise all kinds of ruckus when Planned Parenthood comes into a community.

"Foes not only picket construction sites, but they also send picketers out to harass subcontractors at their homes and businesses, try to spread alarm and disgust in the immediate neighborhoods and attempt to browbeat civic officials into implement just the sort of craven, political motives delays we're seeing in Aurora." The "little creative subterfuge," as Zorn put it, is necessary to "ensure that the law is followed," meaning the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, that legalized abortion.

Breathtaking in its "end-justifies-the-means" logic, we are supposed to accept the idea that the abortion industry can appoint itself to decide whether the public has a right to have the kind of information it needs and has a right to have to affect the political process and governance. True, pro-life activists can be counted on to, as Zorn says, "raise all kinds of ruckus," but democracy is untidy.

Most troubling about this debate is the assumption that involvement in the political process through protest or direct action is a bad thing. This, of course, would astonish civil rights activists, who used the tactics of picketing, discomfort, inconvenience, disruption and even civil disobedience to engage the nation's conscience. The Rev. Jesse Jackson just recently was arrested for illegally blocking access to a suburban Chicago gun shop, even though the activities within the gun shop were entirely legal.

Sitting in at a lunch counter and refusing to sit at the back of a bus were just some of the protest and civil disobedience strategies that many of us supported years ago because of the injustice and immorality of Jim Crow laws. That pro-lifers should be accorded the same respect to protest laws they believe to be immoral shouldn't be too much to ask in a democracy. If not that, perhaps pro-choice people and their liberal supports could at least see their way clear to recognize their hypocrisy.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist.

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