People started gathering more than an hour before the meeting.
By the time the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners was scheduled to begin, the line of people waiting to give public comment stretched out of the room, into the hallway, out the door and halfway down the block.
The issue: Whether the board should vote to end a lease agreement with Planned Parenthood, the non-profit health organization that has provided STD testing in Muskegon since 2010. Planned Parenthood’s clinic is currently located inside the county health department building.
“We support the termination of Planned Parenthood’s lease in the county building,” said Angela Boxer, a resident of Muskegon who spoke first during the public comments. “There are better, more comprehensive health care solutions for Muskegon County’s women, men and children than Planned Parenthood.”
Over the next four and a half hours, more than 100 people would offer their own comments. It was emotional at times. Several women talked of being assaulted or raped, and turning to Planned Parenthood for assistance.
“I could barely ask for an exam, and the idea of anyone touching me made me want to throw up,” said Rachel Cereska, who lives in Norton Shores. Cereska told the board she was raped by two men who broke into her home 27 years ago. She says she first went to another clinic, where a staff member told her it was important for her to take responsibility for her own rape. So she turned to Planned Parenthood.
“The staff was gentle, and moved at my pace,” Cereska said. “One nurse in particular stayed with me the entire time. She warned me every time I was touched. She repeatedly told me it wasn’t my fault and she would help me get through it.”
Many of those who spoke out against Planned Parenthood at the meeting did so, they said, because of their opposition to abortion. Planned Parenthood says it doesn’t offer abortions at its Muskegon clinic, but the organization is known for abortion services and referrals elsewhere.
“It is about abortion. Let’s just face it, this is about abortion,” said Monique Rogers. “As a pastor’s wife for over 24 years, I’ve had countless women come to me confidentially asking for counseling and prayer from the trauma of a past abortion – most carrying this weight for decades.”
Planned Parenthood says 3.4% of the services it provided to women in 2017 were for abortion.
A number of the organization’s supporters at last night’s meeting in Muskegon described going to Planned Parenthood for support with continuing a pregnancy.
“I’ve been a Planned Parenthood patient on-and-off since I found myself pregnant at 15. Thanks to them, I was able to easily access the resources I needed to give birth to and raise a healthy girl,” said Jenelle Yovino, of Spring Lake. “Their services save lives and futures.... To me that’s the definition of pro-life.”
But while much of the debate among residents was about abortion, the director of Public Health – Muskegon County said her concern was really just about space for her own staff.
“We have accommodated the needs of other/outside agencies, to the detriment of our own,” Moore wrote in her request to the board, which was first considered and approved by a subcommittee last week. “The space in question is the only area equipped to provide optimal clinical services.”
The problem, according to Planned Parenthood, is that terminating the agreement won’t give the organization enough time to set up a new clinic in the community. Leaders at Planned Parenthood said they had no warning before last week that the lease would be ended.
On Tuesday night, after the line of people waiting to speak finally dissipated, the Board of Commissioners discussed the issue and cast their votes.
The motion to end the lease was approved. Planned Parenthood will now have 90 days to find another space to provide services in Muskegon.