October 7, 2013

Crowd expected as Portland panel weighs abortion protest buffer zone for clinic

The issues of free speech versus unimpeded health-care access will collide at a public hearing.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

Today's poll: Planned Parenthood buffer

Should anti-abortion protesters be prohibited within a certain area around the Portland Planned Parenthood entrance?

Yes

No

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Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer A pedestrian walks past anti-abortion protesters on Congress Street in Portland near the Planned Parenthood clinic Friday.

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Planned Parenthood buffer

Should anti-abortion protesters be prohibited within a certain area around the Portland Planned Parenthood entrance?

Yes

No

View Results