Local pushback stalls planned abortion clinic in West Wendover

Mar 9, 2023, 7:09 AM

The West Wendover city council on Tuesday halted plans for an abortion clinic just two hours from S...

The West Wendover city council on Tuesday halted plans for an abortion clinic just two hours from Salt Lake City. (Scott G Winterton/Deseret News)

(Scott G Winterton/Deseret News)

WEST WENDOVER, Nev. — An effort by Planned Parenthood to open a health clinic in the border city of West Wendover is running up against local politics, as city officials declined to grant a necessary permit based on opposition to abortion.

The proposed clinic would have been the closest out-of-state abortion provider to Salt Lake City, and in a city that is already a weekend destination for Utahns thanks to Nevada’s liquor and gambling laws.

West Wendover Mayor Jasie Holm said the rural city, with a population just shy of 4,500 in 2021, is in dire need of basic health care, with many residents regularly making the nearly two-hour drive to Salt Lake City for routine appointments.

Planned Parenthood Mar Monte — which serves patients throughout central California and northern Nevada — proposed to help fill the gap by opening a full primary care clinic on one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Although Planned Parenthood is known nationally for providing abortion care, Planned Parenthood Mar Monte representatives said the regional organization specializes in rural medicine and would provide a broad range of care to residents in West Wendover.

And while abortion makes up less than 5% of care provided by Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, West Wendover city council members denied the organization’s request for a conditional use permit, primarily citing opposition to the practice.

Health care in West Wendover

During a tense city council meeting on Tuesday, citizens on both sides of the issue urged city leaders to either approve or deny Planned Parenthood’s request.

Abortion is legal in Nevada up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, but only licensed physicians can provide the procedure, according to the Guttmacher Institute. So while citizens took strong stances as to the morality of abortions, the decision before the council was only to approve or deny a clinic that would offer services that are legal in the state.

Holm said she has been working for years to secure more health care options for residents, and the proposed Planned Parenthood clinic could fill several gaps in care. The city currently has a community health center that provides a limited scope of care several days each month.

“Health care has been the No. 1 complaint about living in West Wendover for years,” Holm said in a Facebook post. “Prenatal care, for instance, usually involves 10-15 visits to the (doctor) during pregnancy.”

She said a clinic in West Wendover would mean “10 less trips to SLC, 10 less days off work, 10 less time paying for gas and maintenance on your vehicle, 10 less times worrying about road conditions. This could greatly improve the quality of life for this pregnant woman.”

Holm told KSL.com that the city’s needs include services like kidney dialysis, physical therapy, cardiology, prenatal care, down to setting and casting bones or doing stitches. She said West Wendover has a local clinic that provides family primary care, but lacks urgent care and all the services listed above.

Planned Parenthood Mar Monte’s services extend well beyond just reproductive care and would include annual preventive visits, immunizations, screenings for cancer and disease risk, episodic illness care, management of chronic medical conditions, gender-affirming care and education about healthy lifestyle choices.

Stacy Cross, CEO and president at Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, said the organization is “unique” because they have several clinics that can provide full primary care.

Cross spoke with KSL.com prior to the council’s vote on the clinic.

“When we looked at that site — it’s a site that really needs primary care. They have a critical shortage of primary care providers, so we’re looking forward to providing an entire range of health services, including reproductive and sexual health care,” she said.

Cross said the clinic could have been completed within six months of being approved.

West Wendover’s city manager told the council the clinic would have no negative impact on accessibility, utilities or other city functions, but the proposal was voted down by the council 4-1.

Holm vetoed the council’s vote but admitted that the result would be the same because Planned Parenthood needed an affirmative vote to get the permit.

“We have explored dialysis centers, physical therapy centers, urgent care facilities with funding always being the biggest factor,” Holm said. “With the conditional use permit being denied, it’s unclear what the next step is for them, if any, in West Wendover.”

Planned Parenthood Mar Monte did not respond to a further request for comment about future plans.

Abortion in Utah

If the clinic was approved, it would have been the nearest out-of-state clinic to Salt Lake City. It would have provided elective abortions to anyone seeking the procedure in Utah.

Durango and Glenwood Springs, Colorado, have Planned Parenthood clinics, but each is more than 350 miles from Salt Lake City.

Grand Junction, Colorado — located just over 30 miles from the Utah border — has a so-called “crisis pregnancy center,” operated by Care Net, an evangelical Christian network. Although the center’s website provides some abortion information, crisis pregnancy centers are often run by anti-abortion activists and don’t perform or recommend abortion care.

Utah’s legislature has eroded abortion access in the state in recent years, and the state’s restrictive “trigger ban” is temporarily paused while the courts consider its legality. That law would prohibit all abortions except in cases of rape or incest, the fetus has a fatal abnormality, or the woman’s life is in danger.

Currently, abortions in Utah are legal through 18 weeks of pregnancy, pending a court decision on the trigger ban.

While the primary purpose of the proposed West Wendover clinic would be to provide services to local residents, Cross acknowledged it would have served patients from other states who seek legal abortions there.

“We see patients, currently, from almost all 50 states, and since the abortion bans, over one-third of our patients are forced to travel from their home state to California and Nevada,” she said. “It’s an incredibly challenging time across our country that people are forced to leave their home state to get basic health care.”

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Local pushback stalls planned abortion clinic in West Wendover