Linda Verraster cannot imagine why elected officials in San Clemente would spend time debating abortion.
The coastal Orange County city has no hospitals or clinics that perform abortions, and it has no power to stop residents from seeking the procedure elsewhere. There are other issues that need attention, Verraster says, like homelessness and affordable housing.
Still, a debate about abortion has been consuming the city and putting it in the spotlight, after Councilman Steve Knoblock proposed that it become a “sanctuary for life,” which would make it an abortion-free zone after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade.
Knoblock’s proposal, which is largely symbolic, has upset residents across the political spectrum, including some of his conservative colleagues as well as abortion rights supporters like Verraster.
On Saturday, the council will consider whether to remove the proposal from its Aug. 16 meeting agenda.
“It’s so far out of their lane that it seems so ridiculous they would bring up something so divisive,” said Verraster, 68, a registered nurse and Democrat who has lived in San Clemente for nearly three decades.
The vibe of Orange County’s southernmost city, with its Spanish-style architecture and famous surf culture, is one of a laid-back beach town.
San Clemente also has an enduring reputation as a conservative bastion, even as much of Orange County has become more politically diverse.
Last year, the San Clemente council declared it a “Second Amendment Freedom City.”
But Knoblock’s proposal, a draft of which was made public last week, was a bridge too far — even for some abortion opponents. It states that life begins at conception and opposes the establishment of clinics that provide abortions.
Councilmembers have been flooded with emails from residents perplexed by the document’s religious bent and angered that their government is weighing in on what many see as a personal health issue. Some residents plan to hold a rally next week near the San Clemente pier to air their concerns.
No matter what happens in San Clemente, the right to an abortion in heavily Democratic California will continue to be protected by state officials.
“This is really an exercise in chest pounding,” said Fran Sdao, 69, a Mission Viejo resident. “We live in California. This means nothing in California. This is just a waste of paper.”
In an interview with The Times, Knoblock said that zoning and permitting could be possible tools to keep abortion clinics out of the city.
Knoblock said he wants 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.”
Knoblock has a history of proposals that many see as outside the purview of local government.
In 2008, he suggested that the council declare support for Proposition 8, a statewide ballot measure that would have banned same-sex marriage. He failed to gain enough buy-in from his colleagues.
That same year, Knoblock successfully advocated to have the phrase “In God We Trust” placed on the city’s logo.
Knoblock’s stance on abortion is at odds with the majority of Californians — and Orange County residents — who support access to the procedure.
Among likely voters in the state, 76% said they did not want Roe vs. Wade overturned, according to a poll this year by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. Support lagged just slightly in Orange County, with 69% of likely voters opposed to overturning the nearly 50-year-old constitutional precedent.
A Planned Parenthood clinic in Mission Viejo — the closest one to San Clemente — had more than 22,000 medical visits last year. It is unclear how many of those visits were abortions, though the organization said the procedure amounts to a fraction of the services it provides.
“This resolution is an example of an extreme politician that serves on the council basically attempting to push a personal agenda not reflecting the views of their constituents,” said Robert Armenta, senior vice president of public affairs at Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties.
Knoblock’s colleagues on the San Clemente City Council, which is majority Republican, described his proposal as overreach.
Councilwoman Kathy Ward called the proposal “ludicrous,” saying in an email to The Times that she does not “take up issues that are not city issues.”
Councilwoman Laura Ferguson said she believes in a woman’s right to choose, with certain limitations, and believes the council should focus on more pressing issues, like homelessness and pension liabilities.
Mayor Gene James, who is opposed to abortion, said he was initially in favor of a council resolution expressing support for the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade. But he said he was “appalled” and “embarrassed” after reading the specifics that Knoblock drafted.
Ward, Ferguson and James are all Republicans.
“The fact that he was delving into issues of medicine, where none of us are qualified to opine on that, is disturbing,” James said. “California is a state where abortion is legal, and there’s nothing the San Clemente City Council can do about that, regardless of whether we’re pro-life or pro-choice.”
Mayor Pro Tem Chris Duncan, a Democrat who is running for state Assembly, said Knoblock’s efforts to ban abortion are “extreme and completely out of step with our community’s basic values.”
Cheri Lyon, who has lived in San Clemente for 15 years, said she was horrified that Knoblock’s resolution blurred the line between church and state.
The resolution states that its intention is to “not only protect life, but also to honor God, who gives life.” It continues that “we believe that life is God-ordained and God is the author and finisher of every life.”
“I read it and was like, ‘What is happening here?’” said Lyon, 46, who favors abortion rights. “It’s not even filled with an argument that it should be a state issue. It was all about God and preserving life. Why [Knoblock] thinks this is something the citizens of San Clemente want is very perplexing to me.”
Lyon said she’s thankful to live in a state whose government has affirmed the right to an abortion but is concerned about what Knoblock’s resolution signals about the future of her city.
San Clemente’s registered voters are about 44% Republican, 28% Democratic and 21% no party.
The city’s support for conservative candidates and causes dates back decades.
In the 1970s, Richard Nixon sought refuge post-Watergate in his beachfront mansion in San Clemente, known as the “Western White House.”
In 2020, San Clemente was the setting for a public mask burning at the pier led by Alan Hostetter, a resident later criminally charged for his alleged role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Knoblock and Hostetter shared the stage at a Donald Trump rally in the city in 2020.
American flags and banners celebrating the U.S. Marine Corps pepper homes across San Clemente, which is roughly 20 miles north of Camp Pendleton.
These days, lawn signs for liberal candidates, as well as gay and transgender pride flags, also appear in the city with more regularity.