Citing recent events and safety concerns, a women’s health clinic in downtown Portland is temporarily using paid staffers to replace volunteer greeters who help patients navigate their way through anti-abortion protesters outside the entrance.

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England’s clinic has been the target of recurring protests since 2012, and was the focus of an unsuccessful attempt by the city to impose a protest-free buffer zone around the clinic’s Congress Street entrance.

Vice President of Public Affairs Nicole Clegg said Thursday that “an unprecedented smear campaign and escalation of crime against Planned Parenthood health centers” nationally has caused concern among volunteer greeters and staffers. However, she stressed that clinic employees and a Portland police officer hired by the group will be on hand to ensure that women can continue to access the clinic for services.

“The safety of patients and staff is our top priority, and Planned Parenthood has strong security measures in place to ensure that our health centers are safe, supportive, welcoming environments for all people to get the high-quality health care they need – no matter what,” Clegg said in an email. “That’s true today and tomorrow and every day.”

Planned Parenthood clinics have been in the national spotlight for months following the release of video clips purported to show the organization selling organs taken from aborted fetuses, a claim Planned Parenthood has denied. Clinics offer a wide range of reproductive health services for women, but some U.S. lawmakers have pushed to cut off federal funding to the organization because of objections to its privately funded abortion services.

SHOOTING PROMPTS MORE POLICE

Security concerns have increased since shootings Nov. 27 at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado that killed three people, including a police officer, and injured nine others.

The day after the attack, the Portland clinic hired additional police officers to stand in front of the Congress Street clinic, although there had been no specific threats. A few days later, Clegg said, clinic staff and police re-evaluated security at the Congress Street clinic, but she declined to say whether changes were made.

The clinic, located in the heart of Portland’s downtown, has been the site of protests each Friday morning. Unlike more rural or suburban clinics, which can prohibit protests on privately-owned land, the only entrances to the Portland clinic are along public sidewalks and streets.

As anti-abortions protests increased and pro-choice advocates began holding counter protests, the city in November 2013 enacted a protest-free buffer zone within 39 feet of the clinic’s entrance. Protesters, some of whom carry posters and shout biblical verses, were forced to stand across the street. Supporters of the measure argued that the protesters interfered with women’s right to receive health care.

But a buffer similar to Portland’s was deemed unconstitutional in June 2014 by the U.S. Supreme Court prompting the city to repeal its law that July. The city later settled a lawsuit filed by the anti-abortion protesters, paying them $1 in nominal damages and $56,500 in legal fees.

Last November, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills announced that she was bringing a civil rights lawsuit against a Lisbon man, who allegedly yelled so loudly from the sidewalk that he could be heard inside the clinic. The lawsuit, which is unprecedented in Maine, seeks to ban him from coming within 50 feet of the clinic at 443 Congress St.

Tim Feeley, spokesman for the AG’s office, said a hearing is scheduled for Jan. 26 on behalf of the defendant, Brian Ingalls, to dismiss the case, but that hearing will likely be postponed.

MAYOR WANTS BUFFER ZONE

Mayor Ethan Strimling, who criticized his predecessor for not doing more to protect women’s right to access health care, said Thursday that he has already had preliminary conversations with the city’s attorney about alternative buffer zone proposals that could pass constitutional muster. “Once we know that, we’d determine what’s needed through conversations with (Planned Parenthood) and public safety,” he said.

Assistant Police Chief Vern Malloch declined to comment on security measures taken at the clinic since the Colorado shooting. Occasionally, the clinic will hire a police officer on overtime to ensure that the rights of protesters and patients are protected and so people can use the sidewalk, he said.

Clegg said the clinic looks forward to reinstating the volunteer greeter program, which was honored by the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America last spring.

“We are enormously grateful to our volunteers who stand up for our organization and our patients,” Clegg said. “We look forward to working with them as we return to a volunteer greeter program in the near future.”