September 11, 2013

Plan to curb protesters outside Portland clinics advances

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – City councilors decided Tuesday to schedule a hearing on a proposal to shield women from protesters who gather outside the Planned Parenthood offices downtown.

click image to enlarge

Pro-choice and anti-abortion protesters exchange words in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic at 443 Congress St. in Portland in January. City councilors decided Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013 to schedule a hearing on a proposal to shield women from protesters who gather outside the Planned Parenthood offices downtown.

2013 Press Herald File Photo / John Patriquin

The city is proposing a 39-foot buffer zone around two entrances to Planned Parenthood, on Congress and Elm streets, where anti-abortion protesters would be banned.

The council's Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee took no public comment at Tuesday's meeting, but more than a dozen supporters of the buffer zone listened to the deliberations. Many wore pink T-shirts saying "I stand with Planned Parenthood."

"We are very pleased with the direction where the committee is going," said Eric Covey, a community organizer with Planned Parenthood, after the meeting. "Every Friday and Saturday, patients are being harassed and intimidated. This is an issue that is continuing and we need to address it."

The committee, which was supportive of the proposal, scheduled the public hearing for Oct. 8, when it will likely vote on a recommendation to the full council.

For about a year, 10 to 25 anti-abortion protesters have gathered regularly in front of Planned Parenthood's Congress Street entrance in an effort to dissuade women from getting abortions, which are offered there.

Protesters, including children, hold large signs showing graphic photos of aborted fetuses. Some shout Bible verses at women and call women murderers as they enter the building.

Planned Parenthood has been collecting testimonials from patients who have said they felt threatened and harassed by "the gauntlet" of protesters. Some women have indicated that they could hear protesters from inside the building.

Donna Hebert, a lead organizer of the protesters, said in a phone interview after Tuesday's meeting that she would seek legal help to fight against the buffer zone if it is enacted. In the meantime, the protesters won't be discouraged from continuing to speak their minds, she said.

"They're pushing us across the street and trying to silence us," Hebert said. "We still have our freedom of speech. We're there for the unborn babies, who have no voice. We'll just hold bigger signs and shout a little louder."

Hebert and another protest organizer, Leslie Sneddon, have said they had multiple abortions before becoming Christians and deciding to stop other women from making the same decisions.

The committee first considered the proposed buffer zone in July. Members expressed a desire to move slowly on any buffer zone and said it should balance a patient's right to receive health care with protesters' freedom of speech.

Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Tuesday that protesters, who gather on Friday and Saturday mornings, have not broken any laws, and that protests have been "status quo" in terms of numbers and complaints from patients.

Trish McAllister, Portland's neighborhood prosecutor, told the committee that a narrowly crafted ordinance establishing a 39-foot buffer zone along Congress and Elm streets would survive a legal challenge, based on existing case law.

A memo from McAllister to the committee cites several cases in which some sort of buffer zone -- whether an 8-foot "bubble" around the patient or a larger buffer zone measured from the building entrance -- has been upheld by courts.

"Our legal opinion is that it does pass constitutional muster based on the case law that exists," McAllister said. "The concern is the Massachusetts case."

The U.S. Supreme Court will take up a challenge to a Massachusetts law that creates a 35-foot buffer zone around entrances to "places where abortions are performed," other than hospitals.

The First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a district court ruling that the law is constitutional, according to McAllister's memo.

"This (Massachusetts law) is very similar to the one that is proposed here," she wrote.

(Continued on page 2)

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