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 instead, City Council members ultimately hastily called a meeting on Saturday, Aug. 6 in the city’s community center, drawing a crowd of hundreds. Protestors stood on the lawn and an overflow room was made available to those who didn’t fit into the main area. About 50 speakers addressed the council — many calling the proposed resolution abuse of power, overreach, political grandstanding, and far outside the purview of a city council.
After a nearly three-hour meeting — where Mayor Gene James pounded his gavel several times to restore order — the council ultimately voted 3-1 to remove the resolution from the Aug. 16 City Council agenda. Knoblock was the lone vote against pulling the item, and Councilwoman Laura Ferguson was not present.
“We’ve heard the community from all sides,” said Councilwoman Kathy Ward. “Let’s pull this from the agenda and get back to the business of San Clemente. There’s no need to let this go any further. I didn’t talk about the issues (pro-life, pro-choice) because I don’t believe they belong here. Let’s get back to the business we should be doing.”
If it had remained on the agenda and were passed, the resolution could have led 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 Knoblock said he wanted 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 said 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 — didn’t have language on enforcement. But it could have signaled official city support for a later ban on abortions except in cases where the mother’s life is at stake or the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.
Ahead of Saturday’s meeting, San Clemente Mayor Pro Tem Chris Duncan said the resolution 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.
“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.”
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.
Should San Clemente have declared 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 ordinances that outlaw abortion procedures within city limits. Still others have passed resolutions.
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.
“In the same breath, cities must also be smart about the laws they enact to protect their residents,” he said, advocating for an enforceable ordinance over a resolution.
“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 did, in fact, invoke religion.
“We believe that life is God-ordained and God is the author and finisher of every life,” the resolution said. “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 recognized 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.”
News of the proposed resolution ignited a firestorm in San Clemente — and across Southern California.
While San Clemente’s city clerk had not officially posted the resolution, a draft version has made its way around town. Many were enraged by it, while some supported 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.”
James, who last month seconded the motion to discuss the topic at the upcoming council meeting, said he heard from residents, and even groups outside of town, who were 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.’”
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.
Experts suggested 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.”
At the meeting on Saturday, Knoblock acknowledged the issue is divisive but said the upcoming Prop 1 vote could put “life under assault now more than ever.”
Of the nearly 50 speakers the majority opposed Knoblock’s resolution.
Among them was longtime San Clemente resident Donna Vidrine who said she was proud to live in a state where women have a fundamental right to choose to have an abortion.
“As a woman, a mother, a nurse, and a health care professional, I find that a woman’s right to choose to carry a baby should not be dictated by politicians, particularly men who will never have to confront the difficult decision to carry or terminate a pregnancy,” she said. “For our City Council to align itself with extremist positions that are rooted in a desire to control, subjugate and punish women like they did in the dark ages is unconscionable.”
“Show me one other effort you have spearheaded to ensure that the welfare, safety, and health of the born who reside in San Clemente is addressed,” she added.
“This ridiculous resolution has brought so much negative attention to our beautiful city,” said Linda Verrasker. “This is an egregious overreach of government and a politician’s ambitions in an election year. We have never seen such outrage by our residents.”
Still, a small number of speakers thanked Knoblock and called him a hero.
“I’d hope San Clemente would be a sanctuary city for life,” said Carolynn Blair, a longtime resident. “Thanks, Steve Knoblock. I’m sure you feel all alone.”
“You are a hero,” said San Clemente resident Mary Farrell. “Courage is in short supply, especially among our men. I want this on the agenda. I’m here to speak for those who cannot speak, vote, or pray.”
The City Council pulled the resolution from the agenda for the upcoming meeting without any plans to introduce a new one. The issue, for now, is over.