San Clemente City Hall
The historic San Clemente City Hall. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The San Clemente City Council voted 3-1 Saturday to remove a resolution from its Aug. 16 meeting that sought to ban abortions in the city, after hearing from mostly outraged citizens during a public comment period that lasted about two hours.

The majority of residents who addressed the council during Saturday’s special meeting criticized Councilman Steve Knoblock’s proposal, accusing Knoblock of over-reaching and seeking to impose his personal religious beliefs on the city’s women. Many also expressed concern about the effect of such a move on the city’s reputation and business interests.

A smaller number expressed support for the resolution and praised Knoblock for his courage in bringing it forward.

The resolution would have called for the south Orange County city to become a “Sanctuary For Life,” and blocked the zoning or permitting of any facility that would provide an abortion in the city.

Mayor Pro-Tem Chris Duncan called the resolution an attempt to “subjugate women and girls like my daughters into second-class citizens.”

But Knoblock, the lone vote against pulling the resolution, offered a fiery defense of his actions.

“There was a lot of discussion today about the can of worms being opened. This resolution didn’t open a can of worms. The issue of abortion is a public policy issue that is now at the forefront of society,” he said. “In the state of California, the Democrat-controlled legislature and governor has put on the agenda the unfettered constitutional right for a woman to kill her baby clear up any time through delivery, through the entire 10 months … That can of worms has been opened.

“That’s why I suggested this city take an action to oppose that. It is a slippery slope, and it’s one that this society is going to have to deal with,” Knoblock added.

Councilman Gene James took responsibility for holding the special meeting on short notice. “We did rush this, and the reason why we rushed it was many of you wrote to us wanting it rushed,” James said.

The mayor said the council received threats over the divisive issue that had to be referred to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office.

“I will take responsibility to say I wanted to do this today. As the mayor, I did have the authority to call for a meeting with 24 hours notice. That was not intended to silence anyone … it was an attempt on my part to put this behind us.”

The imbroglio showed how the abortion issue has become a hot-button topic in local governments across the United States in the weeks since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal throughout the country, sending the issue back to each individual state.

Councilwoman Laura Ferguson told City News Service earlier this week that she was approached by James to introduce the resolution last month, but declined. She said Knoblock brought it up at the July 19 meeting.

Ferguson said she has high regard for Knoblock and added, “He’s been a friend for years, but I just disagree with him on this one.”

Knoblock told the Los Angeles Times that he wanted to send a message to the rest of California that “we think life is important, and we think 60 million unborn babies that have been killed in the womb is a sad thing and shouldn’t be continued.”

California Attorney General Rob Bonta and two local law school professors called the potential resolution unenforceable earlier this week.

“In California, the right to choose remains fully protected, and abortion remains fully legal within our state,” a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office told City News Service on Wednesday. “Attorney General Bonta is committed to defending reproductive freedom and state law.”

Ferguson said the resolution would be a “symbolic, non-binding resolution. It has no teeth. It clearly just states the position of someone on the council. I personally believe in a person’s liberties and freedoms.”

“We’re out of our lane on this one,” Ferguson said. “It’s a huge distraction. We have issues, We have homelessness like most coastal cities do and the housing element to address.”

UC Irvine political science and law professor Tony Smith characterized the move as “cheap political theater.

“This is akin to The Little Rascals putting on a show,” Smith said, referring to group of child actors who starred in a series of comedy short films from 1922 to 1944. “There’s nothing to this, no capacity for this to be successful.

“And this is absolutely not what any city voter wants their City Council to be doing. Even city residents who believe abortion should be outlawed don’t want their City Council deciding what rights they do and don’t have.”

Chapman University law professor Mario Mainero pointed out that the issue of whether a city can act independently of state law has already been addressed in recent years when Huntington Beach failed in its lawsuit to stop the state’s sanctuary state policy for immigrants living in the country illegally and when the county failed to try to enforce a law to prohibit registered sex offenders from all parks. Legal precedent was set in the appellate courts on the question.

“Under state law abortions are legal at least to the point that the standard Roe had,” Mainero said. “State law preempts local law in most cases. Certainly on matters like this because even if San Clemente were a charter city this is not an item where a charter city could violate the state constitution… So if San Clemente passes something like this it’s void.”

UCI law professor Michele Goodwin agreed.

“There can be no such thing as an abortion-free community in the state of California where one’s rights according to the state constitution and legislative enactment are in force and in place,” Goodwin said.

“That’s true whether we’re talking post-Dobbs or pre Roe vs. Wade. The state of California has been very clear about the principles of reproductive freedom and that doesn’t change because there are elected council leaders who are seeking to get local or national attention by attempting to establish that community as an abortion-free zone.”

–City News Service



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Ellen Bullock