Pro-life demonstrators would have to stay at least 8 feet away from the front door of a Maine abortion clinic under a bill that state lawmakers are considering to create a medical safety zone at the entrance to all state healthcare facilities.

This proposal, introduced by Rep. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, would not outlaw the kind of sidewalk ministry that so often occurs outside of reproductive health centers, but it would require protesters to keep their distance from the entrance of the facility.

‘This proposal will protect patients’ right to access health care,” McCreight told members of the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. “It also protects the constitutional right of free speech and of protest … Safe, unimpeded access to chosen health care must be a priority.”

The committee will consider the merits of the bill, L.D. 1899, at a work session in the next few weeks.

Advocates who testified at the public hearing detailed the aggressive tactics that pro-life protesters use outside of Planned Parenthood’s clinic on Congress Street in Portland on Fridays, which is the day that doctors have traditionally conducted procedural abortions there.

“I’ve been called a murderer, sinner, and accomplice to murder, and have been told that I am wicked, evil, disgusting, and destined to burn in the fires of hell for all eternity,” said Marian Starkey of Falmouth, a 10-year volunteer at the Portland clinic. “It’s quite a spectrum of verbal assaults.”


But the clinic offers other services on Fridays, too, like contraceptive counseling, sexually transmitted disease testing and reproductive examinations, meaning that anyone who walks into the building, even those who patronize other businesses there, can be a target for the protesters’ ire.

Volunteer Ann Brandt has been escorting patients in and out of the Portland clinic for five years. She said unmasked protesters regularly come within inches of anyone entering the building on Fridays, even at the peak of the pandemic. Many of the patients end up in tears.

Some also wind up with elevated blood pressure as a result of the harassment, clinic officials said.

The harassment continues for some patients even after they go inside the building. The shouting outside the building is so loud that patients can hear it inside some of the exam rooms, clinic officials said. It makes it difficult for patients to effectively communicate with their doctors.

The bill would not eliminate the so-called gantlet that Portland patients would have to pass through to get to the front door, however. Protestors would still be able to line the sidewalks on either side of the Congress Street clinic, McCreight said.

Violating the medical safety zone could result in a Class E misdemeanor charge, comparable to criminal trespass, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. In Maine, judges have considerable sentencing discretion, so the violation consequences could be far less.


Currently, the only tool available to manage aggressive, non-violent sidewalk ministries is the threat of a noise ordinance violation, which is a civil penalty. There is a loophole, however. Excessively loud protesters are warned first. After that, a replacement protester takes their place as the shouter that day.

The original shouter gets a clean slate to violate the noise ordinance again the next day.

In 2015, a Maine street preacher and abortion protester violated the state’s civil rights law when a jury found that he yelled so loudly outside the Portland clinic that patients and workers were disrupted inside. The protester, Brian Ingalls of Lisbon, received no fine or jail time for the violation.

Under McCreight’s proposal, someone who is warned about a safety zone violation once can be arrested if they do it again at any time, that day or a month later, closing the loophole for protesters who use the one-warning-a-day to regularly intimidate patients.

No one testified against the bill at Tuesday’s hearing, but a representative of Pro-Life Missionaries of Maine, which demonstrates outside the Portland clinic on Fridays, said their sidewalk ministers try to counsel would-be mothers, not intimidate them.

“We try to be gentle with moms, to be kind, because they’re in a tender moment,” said John Andrade of Brunswick, a three-year volunteer with Pro-Life Missionaries. “But there’s also a life at risk here who is dealing with a lot more than intimidation. They’re dealing with ‘I’m about to die.’ That can’t be denied.”


Emotions can run high during this kind of high-stakes ministry, Andrade said. The group has had to ask some members to tone down their rhetoric, and has even had to turn some members away, he said. The 39-year-old admitted that even he has sometimes gone too far in his efforts to save a life.

But the protesters are also the victims of abuse, Andrade said. Abortion activists and people passing by the Friday protests on foot or in their car ridicule their religious beliefs, throw things at them, and have even hit them, Andrade said.

The group has had to resist efforts to curtail its right to free speech before, he said. In 2013, Portland enacted a 39-foot no-protest zone around the Congress Street entrance, but it was repealed in 2014 following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a similar law in Massachusetts.

He doesn’t like McCreight’s bill, and hopes it will fail, but said he didn’t think it would stop the protests.

“We’ll find a way to do God’s will,” Andrade said. “We always do.”

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story