If you’re pro-choice, you might want to stop anti-abortion protesters from standing near Portland’s Planned Parenthood center where they wave signs and sometimes make intimidating comments to patients entering the building. If you’re pro-life, you might want the protesters to remain to call attention to what many see as a moral or religious affront.
The arguments for and against creating a buffer zone around the provider’s office in downtown Portland, however, shouldn’t be based on whether people support or oppose abortion. The goal in this instance should instead be to find the best balance between protesters’ right to free speech and individuals’ right to access health care — and to access it safely.
As Portland officials discuss creating a 35-foot “patient-safety zone,” they will be smart to stick to a solution that neither infringes on protesters’ First Amendment right to make their opinions heard nor patients’ civil right to safe and unimpeded reproductive health services.
It is possible to require protesters — either in defiance of or in support of abortion services — to stand back a distance that still allows them to clearly make their point. The legality of fixed buffer zones around abortion clinics has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and federal courts several times over the last couple decades, and an upcoming Supreme Court case on a Massachusetts’ buffer zone law will provide more legal guidance.
Buffer zones aren’t just for abortion clinics. In 2012, a federal law propelled by a Maine student and put forward by then-Sen. Olympia Snowe created a 500-foot buffer zone for protests near military funerals. It came in reaction to protests across the country by the Westboro Baptist Church, which uses military funerals as a platform to promote its claim that God is angry for the country’s tolerance of homosexuality.
In a different case in 2012, the U.S. Coast Guard granted Shell Oil Company a 500-meter temporary “ safety zone” around a drilling ship in Arctic waters off the coast of Alaska to, it said, protect the safety of workers and the environment. It wasn’t the first time Greenpeace activists had been forbidden from demonstrating near the company’s drilling vessels.
We are highly skeptical any time demonstrators are distanced from the source of a protest. But the First Amendment also has never guaranteed the right to protest in any way one wants. In Portland’s case, more than 150 patients have disclosed on a questionnaire that they feel intimidated, harassed and unsafe because of the protesters. In some cases, patients have arrived in tears.
The demonstrators’ actions have been confrontational but haven’t risen to the level of crime. Saying, as one protester did, “We will wrap your legs in barbed wire, and you will burn in hellfire,” is not a criminal threat, police said, as it would have to be more specific.
But, to a woman arriving for an appointment to talk about her birth control options, get tested for HIV or have a blood pressure screening, it doesn’t really matter whether the words were criminal. They still feel like harassment and could constitute a barrier to services. The city has an interest in maintaining the health and safety of women seeking medical care. Protesters can still make their point without being directly next to a patient who is likely to already have experienced trauma.
A buffer zone should only be used as a last resort. If one is created, it must be sensible and tailored to the situation’s specific geography. It doesn’t make sense, for example, to simply push protesters down the street in front of other businesses. And the city should not direct protesters to a place where their voices can’t be heard. As members of the City Council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee develop recommendations for action, “balance” will be one of the most important words.