City councilors voted Monday night to repeal the ordinance creating a 39-foot buffer zone around the entrance to a Portland clinic that provides abortions, but vowed to return with alternative restrictions that will pass muster with federal courts.
The City Council’s 7-1 vote came less than two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a 35-foot buffer zone around clinics in Massachusetts violated the free-speech rights of anti-abortion demonstrators. The court said other restrictions are constitutional, but did not spell out exactly how communities should balance the First Amendment rights of protesters with the safety concerns of patients seeking treatment at women’s clinics.
Councilor Cheryl Leeman called the repeal “a legal bump in the road.”
“Please know that we still have the same concerns and that we are not going to let go of this issue,” Leeman told members of the audience. “We will just re-craft (the ordinance) so that hopefully it will pass legal muster.”
The City Council voted unanimously in November to adopt the 39-foot buffer zone in response to regular, non-violent protests outside Planned Parenthood’s clinic on Congress Street. The clinic provides a broad range of women’s health services, including family planning and cancer screenings.
But anti-abortion demonstrators – who often describe themselves as “counselors” offering information on alternatives to ending a pregnancy – quickly challenged the city’s ordinance in court. And an attorney representing the plaintiffs in that case – Daniel and Marguerite Fitzgerald of Shapleigh and their children – said last week that her clients will likely continue with their lawsuit regardless of the council vote so there would be a court ruling that specifically addresses Portland’s buffer zone.
U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torreson had not yet ruled on the plaintiffs’ motion to suspend Portland’s ordinance. But the city’s attorney said Monday night that Torreson made clear this week she would rule on the request now that the Supreme Court has unanimously rejected Massachusetts’ law as unconstitutional.
Nonetheless, numerous abortion-rights advocates urged councilors Monday not to repeal the city’s buffer zone ordinance before agreeing on an alternative policy.
Lynne Schmidt, a crisis counselor from Norway who said she has had an abortion, asserted that the Supreme Court decision only applies to the Massachusetts law. Schmidt, who also runs an online forum called Abortion Chat, said harassment from demonstrators can be harmful to the mental health of women entering the building.
“There is not enough room on those sidewalks,” Schmidt said. “This buffer zone has kept everyone safe.”
Deena Metzler of South Portland also urged the council not to repeal the ordinance, because she predicted it will lead to increased harassment.
“In the time that it takes you to reach a solution, there are real effects,” Metzler said.
No abortion opponents spoke during Monday’s meeting. But councilors said they felt they had no choice but to repeal the ordinance. Even the councilor who cast the lone dissenting vote, Jill Duson, said she hoped that enough councilors would vote “yes” to ensure the ordinance is repealed.
“I think it is important for at least one of us to vote ‘no,’ ” Duson said. “I think the Supreme Court ruling is wrong. But they haven’t said that we don’t get to decide this. What they have said is they don’t like where we drew the line.”
Members subsequently endorsed a motion by Duson to refer the issue to the council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, which was charged with recommending a new policy in time for a vote by the full council in mid-September.
The committee is likely to look at a variety of measures in place in other cities and states. Colorado, for instance, has a “floating bubble” policy near abortion clinics and other health care facilities that requires protesters and “counselors” to stay 8 feet away from another person unless that person has given them consent to move closer.
Other cities have adopted smaller buffer zones, while some have sought to crack down on aggressive protests with strict anti-harassment legislation.
Nicole Clegg, vice president for public policy at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said that although her organization is disappointed with the Supreme Court ruling, it respects the City Council’s decision to repeal the current ordinance.
Clegg said Planned Parenthood will continue to provide “greeters” and escorts outside the Congress Street facility. In the meantime, her organization is urging Portland city officials to look at other “tools” to make sure that those traveling to Planned Parenthood’s facility for any reason feel safe, she said.