July 30, 2013

Our View: Clinic door wrong place for abortion protesters

Free speech is not the right to interfere with an individual accessing a medical facility.

Abortion protesters have a right to make their case in public.

click image to enlarge

Opponents of abortion protest outside the Planned Parenthood clinic on Congress Street in Portland in an Oct. 19, 2012, file photo. Requiring that the protesters move away from the clinic’s door would allow them to show their posters and present their message, while still allowing patients to enter the clinic for medical treatment without being harassed.

2012 File Photo/Gordon Chibroski

Women who use a reproductive health clinic have a right to make the most personal decisions about their lives in private.

These rights have come into conflict outside Portland's Planned Parenthood health center on Congress Street, as weekly protests have involved close confrontations between people who are seeking medical treatment, including abortions, and people who think abortion should be illegal. Balancing these two sets of rights is a challenge for the city, but it's time to consider a shift that does a little more to protect the privacy and dignity of the women who are seeking medical treatment.

Since December, Planned Parenthood and its advocates have asked for a buffer zone around the entrance of the health center to give patients a chance to enter the building without a struggle. On Tuesday, the council's Public Safety Committee will take up the issue for the first time.

Last winter, we advised caution, encouraging city officials to be mindful of the First Amendment rights of the protesters as well as the rights of Planned Parenthood's patients. We still advise city officials to be careful, but as the protests have continued, we believe that everyone's rights can be best protected if the two sides were separated.

The protesters hold signs and shout slogans. Without permission, they photograph and videotape patients who are trying to enter. They speak directly to the women entering the clinic, attempting to influence their choices.

While this may not violate the Maine law that prohibits physically obstructing the entrance of a medical facility, it also goes beyond the political speech that the First Amendment is designed to protect.

This is not a case of two sets of advocates lined up and engaging in a vigorous political argument: Here, there is only one group of activists, who are using the tools of political protest against individuals who are there for medical attention, not for a debate.

Requiring that the protesters move away from the clinic's door would let them show their posters and deliver their message. But it would also let the patients get the health care that they choose without being harassed.

A buffer zone law in Colorado was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000. A municipal ordinance in Burlington, Vt., also passed judicial muster in February. A Massachusetts buffer zone law was upheld by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals and is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As Justice John Paul Stevens noted in his opinion upholding the Colorado statute, these laws do not regulate the content of speech, but they do "make it more difficult to give unwanted advice ... to persons entering or leaving medical facilities."

That would be a good place for Portland officials to reset the balance between free speech and privacy.


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