SACO — When I began working for BlueTarp Financial at 443 Congress St. in Portland in May 2012, I was not aware of the Planned Parenthood protesters.

Over the course of that summer, though, they became unavoidable.

Every Friday morning, incredibly graphic posters lined the sidewalk that led to the entrance of my workplace.

Men, women and children crowded together and shouted “murderer,” “sinner” and worse at nearly every woman who entered the building.

Having fallen victim to this for a number of weeks, I decided to volunteer with Planned Parenthood as a greeter to stand outside the health center and to escort patients in through the crowd.

I saw patients’ and co-workers’ comfort, repose, health, peace and safety disregarded as they attempted to get into the building every Friday. They were annoyed. They were disturbed. They were uncomfortable.

When the protesters shouted out fire and brimstone at full voice, I could hear them from my seventh-floor office cubicle.

So could the customers calling into the call center there.

When one of my co-workers attempted to file a noise complaint with the police, she was turned away because the officer did not have the legal tools to protect her workspace from being flooded with hostile sounds.

When the protesters brought an amplifier, their vitriol became even more inescapably intrusive.

Although they’re no longer allowed to use loudspeakers, the protesters are doing real damage to members of our community.

Standing on the sidewalk with these people for 2½ hours every single week from October 2012 through July 2013 allowed me to see dozens of women – many of whom weren’t even coming to Planned Parenthood – with tears streaming down their faces at the prospect of walking through the corridor of gory images and shouting faces.

I spoke with women who dissolved into tears and canceled necessary preventive care appointments because they could not cope with the taunts from the crowd.

The other greeters and I used our bodies to shield patients who were afraid that the pictures the protesters were taking and posting on Facebook would endanger their privacy and safety.

Reproductive health care is a legally protected right.

When patients are canceling appointments because they are being taunted, photographed and bombarded by a mob for trying to access that right, they are clearly not receiving adequate protection.

The rest of the community needs protection, too.

These “pro-life missionaries” have taken my picture many times and posted it on Facebook, captioned with epithets like “Deathscort” and “wicked.”

On one occasion, I was genuinely afraid of a visiting preacher with the group who threatened to force me to my knees, bind me and throw me in a lake of fire.

The police officer couldn’t take action to stop what felt like direct threats, again not being equipped with the legal tools to stop the harassing behavior.

I went back out to continue trying to help support patients and co-workers by trying to be friendly and welcoming as they came into the building, and the preacher looked me dead in the eye and said that he would “wipe that smile right off of (my) face.”

I looked over my shoulder every time I was walking around alone in the area for weeks, just to make sure he wasn’t there.

Patients deserve the right to access health care without intimidation.

Local employees and those intending to shop or eat in the area deserve the right to use the sidewalk without having to face down a torrent of insults and threats – regardless of the personal beliefs behind them.

At 7 p.m. Monday at City Hall, the Portland City Council will hold a public hearing and vote to decide whether or not to pass a proposed patient safety zone ordinance, which would create the physical space necessary for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England patients to access the health center free of harassment and intimidation.

I strongly urge the City Council to create the requested 39-foot buffer zone.

The patient safety zone will give local law enforcement an important tool in ensuring safety and civility.

Additionally, it will allow local businesses, employees and patients to access the building free of harassment and intimidation, and recognize concern for safety while preserving individual freedom of speech.

While I disagree with what the group has to say, I support their right to say it – at a respectable distance from those who shouldn’t have to endure harassment and intimidation to get to the front door.

— Special to the Press Herald