PORTLAND — One Friday morning last summer, Deena Metzler walked through the group of boisterous anti-abortion protesters holding photos of dead fetuses on her way to Planned Parenthood, where she was scheduled to have an abortion.
Metzler, 26, said she sat in the waiting room for two hours. Outside, she could see and hear protesters yelling Bible verses at other women entering the clinic and calling them murderers, she said. She was insulted when they accused her of making her decision lightly.
“It just felt really invasive for these people to feel they had a right to be a part of that conversation,” she said.
On Tuesday, a City Council committee will hold a public hearing on two proposals that would create a safe zone for patients entering the clinic.
One proposal would create a 25-foot buffer around the most-used clinic entrance on Congress Street. The other would effectively ban demonstrators from gathering on the Congress Street and Elm Street sidewalks within 39 feet of the clinic’s entrances.
“I wanted to make sure we were looking at a variety of options,” said Councilor Edward Suslovic, who chairs the committee. “This is not something we should rush into.”
Organizers for the anti-abortion protesters say they will sue the city if the buffer zone is enacted, and will continue their protests in accordance with the law.
Organizer Leslie Sneddon said protesters are not breaking any laws and are not harassing patients – they are simply practicing their First Amendment right to free speech and assembly.
“If (pregnant women) feel like (an abortion) is something they don’t want to do, it’s going to feel like harassment when someone tells them the truth – that they are going to murder their baby,” Sneddon said. “The harassment is coming from within the person” getting the abortion, she said.
Sneddon is one of two organizers who said they each had multiple abortions before deciding for religious reasons to try to stop other women from going through with the decision.
For about a year, 10 to 25 anti-abortion protesters, including children, have gathered regularly in front of Planned Parenthood’s Congress Street entrance, some holding large signs showing graphic photos of aborted fetuses. Some shout Bible verses at women and call them murderers as they enter the building.
Shortly after the protests started, Planned Parenthood hired police officers to ensure the protests did not get out of control. The clinic also has greeters in brightly colored vests to help patients navigate through the crowds.
Police have reported no arrests stemming from the protests.
Planned Parenthood has been collecting testimonials from patients who have said they felt threatened and harassed by protesters.
Eric Covey, a community organizer for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said he will present 170 such testimonials on Tuesday to the council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, which is charged with sending a recommendation to the full council.
Metzler, a student at the University of Southern Maine, decided to speak personally about her experience and the impact of the protests. Despite being accused of making her decision lightly, she had thought long and hard about her decision, and had the support of her partner and her mother, she said.
“It just added to the anxiety I was feeling about already making a very difficult decision,” said Metzler, who was using birth control when she unintentionally got pregnant. “I really want to be a mother, (but) in the future. … This just wasn’t the right time for me.”
The 39-foot buffer zone would radiate out from the three entrances to the clinic – two on Congress Street and one on Elm Street. That zone would effectively prohibit demonstrations of any kind on sidewalks in front of the clinic, but allow protesters to gather on sidewalks across the street.
The 25-foot buffer would radiate from the Congress Street entrance farthest from the Elm Street intersection.
Covey said the city should enact the 39-foot buffer zone so patients can receive care that is “free from harassment and intimidation.”
“Even though it doesn’t reach a criminal level, it is still a barrier to access health services,” Covey said of the protesters. “There are a lot of verbal altercations that can escalate quickly.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is following the issue, but does not consider the current proposal an infringement on freedom of speech, said spokeswoman Rachel Healy.
“Generally, courts have upheld this sort of buffer zone when it applies to everyone, regardless of viewpoint,” Healy said. “We are hopeful that the result of the process in Portland is a solution that protects the rights of patients to access health care, as well as the right of the protesters to express their opinions.”
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to take up a challenge to a similar buffer zone in Massachusetts. That ruling would likely affect Portland’s buffer zone, if enacted, Neighborhood Prosecutor Trish McAllister has said.
Covey, meanwhile, said he expects buffer zone supporters to show up in force on Tuesday.
“We expect a very vibrant group of supporters,” he said.
For Metzler, the buffer zone would allow patients to have the space they need to talk to their doctors when making difficult and extremely personal decisions.
“I don’t need someone else imposing their views on me,” she said.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:r