Wednesday, March 12, 2014
PORTLAND – Planned Parenthood's request for a buffer zone to shield patients from anti-abortion protesters has pushed city officials to weigh the dueling rights of citizens to speak freely and to access health care.
Portland police chief Michael Sauschuck and neighborhood prosecutor Trish McAllister address Portland's Public Safety, Health & Human Services Committee at City Hall on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 about protests outside the city's Planned Parenthood clinic.
John Patriquin / Staff Photographer
John Greenwood, R.N. from Kennebunk, Elizabeth Marcuse and Julia Springer, both from Cape Elizabeth were among the large crowd to attend Tuesday's meeting in support of a buffer zone to protect the clinic's patients.
John Patriquin / Staff Photographer
More than 120 supporters of Planned Parenthood packed a meeting Tuesday evening at City Hall as a City Council committee considered possible steps to passing an ordinance that would establish a "patient safety zone" in front of the clinic at 443 Congress St.
Each Friday morning for more than a year, 10 to 25 protesters have harassed and intimidated patients as they have entered and left the clinic, said city and Planned Parenthood officials. More recently, the protests have expanded to Saturday mornings.
"I can't even begin to imagine how it might feel," said Councilor Cheryl Leeman. "It has to be absolutely frightening."
The protesters have broken no laws and have responded to police oversight, so no one has been arrested, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck told the council's Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee.
But Sauschuck and other officials described protesters holding pictures of aborted fetuses, yelling biblical threats of damnation, photographing and videotaping patients as they arrive and leave, and following people down the sidewalk offering pamphlets, all in the public right of way.
Among 161 Planned Parenthood patients who have been surveyed since November, 110 said they felt intimidated or harassed by the protesters, 150 said the protesters made them feel uncomfortable, and 158 said they would support a 35-foot buffer.
Councilor John Coyne compared the protesters to schoolyard bullies.
"(Patients) shouldn't be subjected to whatever's going on there," Coyne said. "I understand that people have a right to protest (and) maybe all the things that go on there I'm not supportive of." But patients have a right to access health care, he said.
Councilor Jill Duson said she first obtained birth control at a Planned Parenthood clinic when she was 17 and has worked for the organization in the past. But she's a lawyer with a "passion" for the Constitution and the First Amendment, she said.
"I come to this very, very conflicted," Duson said, noting that patients shouldn't have to "run a gauntlet" of protesters to see a doctor or nurse.
The protesters' goal is to intimidate, she said, and the city may infringe on their free speech rights "if we push them so far away that they have no impact."
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last month to hear an appeal of a similar law passed in Massachusetts in 2007 to create 35-foot buffer zones around the entrances and driveways to reproductive health clinics.
The high court has upheld three similar laws in other states, dating back to 1995, but there's no telling how the current justices will rule, said Trish McAllister, the city's neighborhood prosecutor.
A decision on Massachusetts' law could take as long as two years, she said.
In the meantime, similar laws across the country are in the spotlight, McAllister said, and if Portland approved a buffer ordinance, it likely would be challenged in court and be subject to a temporary restraining order.
Councilor Edward Suslovic, the committee chairman, asked for additional information, including potential impacts of a buffer zone on other health care facilities and options for the city's response if a buffer zone is approved and then challenged in court.
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