Muskegon County commissioners vote to end lease with Planned Parenthood following hours of testimony at packed, emotional hearing

Hundreds of people attend a Muskegon County Board of Commissioners public hearing Tuesday.

The Muskegon County Board of Commissioners voted 6-2 to evict Planned Parenthood from its space inside the Public Health department following a five-hour hearing Tuesday evening, elating individuals who condemned the national organization for providing abortions—although the clinic in Muskegon does not—and devastating residents who say the group’s departure could translate to about 1,500 people being left without affordable healthcare services.

Planned Parenthood now has 90 days to leave its office at 209 E. Apple Ave., which it has rented from the county since 2010, and it may no longer be able to operate within Muskegon at all, according to Jim Norton, vice president of development for Planned Parenthood of Michigan.

“There’s no guarantee that we can continue to provide services in Muskegon,” Norton said in an interview with the Muskegon Times. “We’ll certainly look into it, but it could be cost prohibitive. The services we provide in Muskegon, which do not include abortion, could go away.”

Tuesday’s emotionally charged public hearing drew hundreds of people to the Louis A. McMurray Conference Center in Muskegon Heights, where individuals on both sides of the issue broke down crying while testifying as to whether or not Planned Parenthood should remain inside the county Public Health building.

Board Vice Chairman Gary Foster and Commissioners Zach Lahring, Bob Scolnik, Charles Nash, Rillastine Wilkins, and John Snider voted to end the county’s lease with Planned Parenthood. Commissioners Marcia Hovey-Wright and Ken Mahoney voted against the eviction. Board Chairwoman Susie Hughes was not at the meeting.

Supporters of evicting Planned Parenthood at the meeting.

Arguments advocating for Planned Parenthood’s exit from the county building centered around criticism of the national organization providing abortions, as well as the fact that the county Public Health department requested to move into the space in order to expand its STD/HIV services. Commissioner Zach Lahring, who was elected in 2018 and campaigned on ousting Planned Parenthood, emphasized that the healthcare group annually pays $1,500 to rent space in a building for which the county pays $8,000 a year.

“They need to go because they’re a political organization,” Lahring, whose district covers Fruitport Charter Township, Ravenna Township, and Sullivan Township, said in an interview with the Muskegon Times. “They pay $125 a month in rent, which includes lights, heat, air conditioning, cleaning, building maintenance, any painting, trash pickup, and more.”

“Planned Parenthood is a $1.5 billion organization…Planned Parenthood does not need to be subsidized by Muskegon County taxpayers,” Lahring said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Those who spoke in favor of Planned Parenthood remaining at the county building said the group provides affordable healthcare services for often low-income patients, including cancer screenings, family planning, STD/HIV testing, breast exams, physical exams, menopause education, and more. The Muskegon clinic does not provide abortions. The organization currently works with about 1,500 patients.

Supporters of Muskegon’s Planned Parenthood clinic.

“I consider Planned Parenthood—and it’s not just opinion, it’s fact—to be an asset in this community,” testified former Community Foundation for Muskegon County President Chris McGuigan.

“I was a patient of Planned Parenthood throughout my childbearing years; I celebrated with their nurse practitioners with every positive pregnancy test,” McGuigan said. “We have to see the truth in opposition to the vilification that’s in the air, and it’s national; it’s not just Muskegon. Planned Parenthood provides high quality, reproductive healthcare in Muskegon.”

Should Planned Parenthood be unable to open in another Muskegon location, Public Health Director Kathy Moore said there are other affordable options for residents in the area.

“There’s a plethora of clinics and agencies,” Moore said, noting that Hackley Community Care and Muskegon Family Care receive federal funding to provide services to low-income patients.

But Hovey-Wright said “there are no other providers that provide family planning services that are subsidized and affordable.”

“There are other doctors’ offices and clinics, but they may not be affordable,” said Hovey-Wright, who served as the executive director of the Muskegon Area Planned Parenthood from 1980 to 1985.

Hovey-Wright too emphasized that while Planned Parenthood receives federal funding to provide Title X services—which includes wellness exams, cervical and breast cancer screenings, birth control, STD and HIV testing, and more—the government money does not cover all that is needed. As a result, Planned Parenthood ends up subsidizing the Muskegon clinic to the tune of about $10,000.

“If the Health Department wants to pick up Title X, I don’t know where that additional funding is going to come from,” Hovey-Wright said, referring to the $10,000.

The crowd at Tuesday’s hearing.

In response, Lahring said Moore, the county public health director, had reported “there’s no charge or increase to the general fund” to take over the Planned Parenthood space.

As the afternoon gave way to evening, the hearing remained jam-packed, the line to speak before the commissioners spilling far outside of the building. Residents waited for hours to share their stories, which ranged from receiving what they described as life-saving support from Planned Parenthood following sexual assaults to individuals citing Bible verses and speaking of counseling women distraught after having abortions. In a sea of people sporting pink Planned Parenthood shirts and others waving “Evict Planned Parenthood” signs, the audience was emblematic of a divided public, an ideologically diverse crowd that, no matter what side individuals were on, was deeply dedicated to sharing the importance of the issue to them.

“I’ve been in a lot of public hearings, and I’ve never been to one like this before,” Commissioner Bob Scolnik said. “But this is as good as it gets; people were respectful.”

The testimony was a glimpse into often very personal, and very painful, pieces of people’s lives, and speakers frequently collapsed into tears as friends and family members hugged them.

A woman from Norton Shores spoke of seeking help at the Planned Parenthood in Muskegon after being raped.

“One nurse stayed with me the entire time I was there; she sensed my desire to end my life,” she said.

“She called me every day for the next two months,” she continued. “I believe she called me every day to make sure I didn’t follow through on my desire to end my life…Planned Parenthood saved my life. The clinic needs to stay in this community to provide healthcare without judgement.”

While the Muskegon clinic does not provide abortions, many of those who spoke during the public hearing said they could not support a venue that is part of a national organization that does.

Monique Rogers, whose husband, Rick Rogers, is the pastor at Oak Crest Church in Muskegon, told commissioners that she has had “countless women come to me for counseling and prayer for the trauma of past abortions.”

“This is about abortion, and, more than that, it’s about life,” Rogers said.

Jamie Way, of Norton Shores, emphasized that the Muskegon Planned Parenthood is “not an abortion mill.”

“They provide services for men and women who need them desperately,” she said. “To kick them out is doing a terrible injustice to the people of this community.”

And Joshua EldenBrady, a Muskegon-based attorney, emphasized that increased access to birth control, which Planned Parenthood provides, paves the way for a decreased number of abortions.

“The intent of many of those who spoke is to lower abortion rates; the simple reality is the single most effective way to lower abortion rates” is access to contraception, EldenBrady said.

According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, access to no-cost contraception has caused a decline in abortions nationwide from 2006 to 2015. The total number of reported abortions decreased 24 percent during these years, from 842,855 in 2006 to 638,169 in 2015.

“I can tell you there is no other place I can confidently tell people to go if you want to get contraceptives and not get preached at,” EldenBrady said.

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While Norton and others who spoke during the hearing accused Lahring of spearheading efforts to kick out Planned Parenthood, Scolnik said Moore has “been working on this long before [Lahring] ran.” Moore said the county’s Public Health department is in dire need of additional space; currently, the county’s clinical facilities include two offices with several cubicles inside the Apple Avenue building. Planned Parenthood’s space constitutes about a third of the county building and includes two exam rooms, a lab, a records space, and a front desk area. The Public Health department and Planned Parenthood share the lab and at least one other room.

But, for Norton, none of this is about space—he said Planned Parenthood would have been more than willing to figure out an arrangement that would have given the health department adequate room. However, he said, the Public Health department did not notify them of the impending eviction and instead the organization found out about it through the County Commission agenda.

“Not only have they not reached out about notifying us in this process, they won’t return our phone calls,” Norton said. “This is not about healthcare, and it’s not about space in the health department. Let’s be clear: this is about our stance on abortion and not the actual services being provided in Muskegon.”

Benj Spencer said “Planned Parenthood is not our child that we need to hold their hand.”

“They’re not a government organization,” Spencer said, arguing that Planned Parenthood is the “most polarizing and controversial organization, perhaps on the globe.”

As Planned Parenthood prepares to leave the county health building, Hovey-Wright said 90 days is not sufficient time for the organization to try to find another space. Snider, a commissioner, said county lawmakers could revisit extending Planned Parenthood’s lease if need be.

“We will do whatever we can to support them in their transition, wherever they’d like to go,” said Nash, a commissioner. “…We want our citizens to have all the services they need.”

Story and photos by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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