A crowd of anti-abortion activists calling for the defunding of Planned Parenthood were outnumbered by waves of men and women who came in 30-minute shifts to stand in silent defense of the San Luis Obispo health care center Saturday.
The local face-off reflected similar protests around the country Saturday, as anti-abortion activists held rallies calling for the federal government to cut off Medicaid funds to the nonprofit health care agency. In many cases, those rallies were met with similar or larger counter protests by Planned Parenthood supporters.
That was the case in San Luis Obispo, where organizers said about 800 people, including U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, gathered at Emerson Park and in front of the clinic two blocks away on Pismo Street during the course of the day to show their support for Planned Parenthood’s five clinics along the Central Coast.
“For years, we’ve seen Republicans successfully chip away at women’s access to health care,” said Carbajal, a Democrat elected in November to represent the 24th Congressional District.
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“They think that they have the authority to make personal medical decisions for women,” he said. “They think they know better than our health care providers about the services women depend on. And they think it’s no big deal to shut down hundreds of health care clinics offering essential services to our communities. We stand together today to say that they are gravely mistaken. We must stand up and defend our Central Coast Planned Parenthoods, not defund them.”
Those calling for defunding — about 110 men, women and children — stood on the north side of Pismo Street across the street from the health center, praying, singing songs like “Amazing Grace” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and, in some cases, holding graphic signs.
“I support the move to defund Planned Parenthood and preserve the life of the unborn,” said Genevieve Czech of San Luis Obispo. “There are about 1,600 health centers in this state where women can get the health care they deserve.”
Cal Poly Students for Life President Margaret Caligaris said she and other college students attended to “bear witness to what we think is one of the biggest atrocities of our generation — the abortion industry and the corruption of Planned Parenthood.”
A diverse group of counterprotesters, many still inspired by last month’s Women’s March, gathered at the park, where they signed 500 postcards and made phone calls to their elected officials before taking turns walking to the Planned Parenthood center to stand on the edge of the sidewalk, creating a path for clients to get to the door.
Organizer Robyn Berry said about 750 to 800 people participated throughout the day and raised $10,000 to donate to the local center.
“I believe in the availability of access to contraception and basic women’s health care for all women, especially in light of the Affordable Care Act being rescinded,” said Jill Baker, a nurse living in San Miguel. “It’s not always about abortion, it’s about women’s health and about them making decisions about their own bodies.”
“They’ve helped a lot of people, including myself,” said Amy Degenkolb of San Luis Obispo. “They’ve helped not only women, but men as well. I get my annual exam here sometimes.”
Planned Parenthood centers on the Central Coast serve about 35,000 people annually. A loss of funding would “hurt vulnerable populations in our community,” said regional President Jenna Tosh.
Of those who access Planned Parenthood across the state, 87 percent are considered low-income. Those who utilize the Central Coast centers are 46 percent Hispanic and a vast majority are younger than 34 years old. More than 70 percent of the funding for the Central Coast clinics comes from Medicaid, called Medi-Cal in California.
The face-off on Pismo Street became tense at moments as anti-abortion activist Danny Ehinger of Paso Robles walked through the crowd of Planned Parenthood supporters as he held a large, graphic sign of an alleged aborted fetus, and yelled that they were paid hypocrites who had been lied to.
“End violence against women, end abortion,” he yelled. “We make Hitler look like a rookie.”
Multiple people protesting Planned Parenthood denounced Ehinger’s tactics, and said he wasn’t a part of their group.
“Our purpose was to have a peaceful, nonconfrontational event. We’re all cringing every time he starts to scream,” said Karen Frigon of Paso Robles.
Those who support Planned Parenthood said they will continue their efforts to express their position; an action booth at the park was set up for the sole purpose of empowering new activists with their next steps.
Anti-abortion activists plan to continue, too. A tour called “We Don’t Need Planned Parenthood” is scheduled to make a stop in Cal Poly on Monday afternoon.