PORTLAND, Maine — The Portland City Council on Monday night unanimously approved a 39-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics, a move supporters said maintains the free speech rights on anti-abortion protesters and potentially saves the lives of clinic patients.
After the vote was taken nearly three and a half hours into the meeting, an applause erupted from the audience, causing Mayor Michael Brennan to pound the gavel to restore order for the remainder of the agenda items.
The buffer zone — which at this point just applies to the Congress Street office of Planned Parenthood, the only such facility in Portland — came about in response to weekly protests which patients told police “intimidated and harassed” them.
City Councilor Ed Suslovic told his fellow councilors the buffer zone is a “very careful balancing act” between the protesters’ constitutional rights to free expression and Planned Parenthood clients’ legally protected civil rights to access health care.
Several of the organization’s employees and patients told the council Monday night they were told by demonstrators that they were doomed to Hell when walking a gantlet to the front door of the office.
The protesters represent the group Pro Life Missionaries of Maine.
“I suspect that God is very tired of being called down on both sides of this issue with such righteousness. I’m not going to try and guess what God thinks about this 39-foot buffer zone,” the Rev. Sue Gabrielson of the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination told the council. “But I also know that as a person of faith, it’s not my job to be judgmental.”
Becky Hunt, an obstetrician-gynecologist, said many patients are skipping appointments because they are afraid of the protesters, and putting off reproductive medical care in some cases could be fatal.
“A protester told me that they would bound me at the knees and lower me into a lake of fire,” said Saco resident Bre Kidman. “When I came back out [of Planned Parenthood], they told me that to help patients, they would wipe the smile off my face. If that’s not a threat, I don’t know what is.”
But opponents of the buffer zone called claims of intimidation and dire consequences “alarmist,” adding that abortions constitute “murder” and the buffer zone was an “attack on God.”
“If not these missionaries, who will speak for these unborn children?” area resident Derek Abbott said. “The most dangerous place near Planned Parenthood is inside Planned Parenthood for those children.”
Others who urged rejection of the buffer said it went too far to infringe on free speech.
“It’s a first amendment issue,” Jeff Sneddon, a protester from Richmond, told the council. “It is setting a dangerous precedent for additional rights to be taken away, and it is censorship to stop people from handing out [brochures] and talking.”
Doug Emerson of Allen Avenue said he was a Planned Parenthood patient himself and disagreed with the protesters’ message, but said they had a constitutional right to deliver them on the public sidewalk.
“I’m against the bubble and the restriction of space,” Emerson told the council. “We’ve already heard the chief of police say they haven’t had to arrest anyone, and the police are very capable of determining when protesters are infringing on the patients’ access to health care.”
Dozens attended the meeting wearing pink shirts or stickers, or yellow “Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights” shirts in support of the buffer zone, while others gathered in opposition.
The move could set the stage for another First Amendment legal battle for the city, which has been hit with lawsuits alleging free speech infringements at least twice in the last two years.
Members of the Occupy Maine encampment in Lincoln Park argued the city was trampling on their constitutional rights when it asked them to remove their tents and demonstrations from the public park early last year. The demonstrators ultimately dropped their case after a judge ruled in the city’s favor.
In another case, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is currently representing three residents who allege that the city’s new ordinance preventing people from standing in median strips takes away their First Amendment right to express themselves with signs in those locations. That case is scheduled to play out in a one-day trial on Tuesday.
Portland neighborhood prosecutor Trish McAllister, a staff attorney who focuses on civil complaints and works closely with the police department, told the council Monday night that similar buffer zones to the one being discussed in Portland have been upheld against challenges three times by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The weekly anti-abortion protests, which began last fall, triggered a counter-protest last winter organized by area businessman Mike Fink, and the early January protest duel over abortion rights attracted widespread media attention.
Fink has long called for the establishment of a 35-foot buffer zone to keep protesters away from the immediate paths of Planned Parenthood patients, and blamed the regular demonstrations for driving away foot traffic to his nearby restaurant, which he closed in August.
The nonprofit Planned Parenthood has been a target of anti-abortion activists nationwide because of the organization’s advocacy for reproductive rights. Some congressional conservatives have similarly fought to eliminate federal funding for the organization over the years because it provides information about — and in some cases performs — abortions.
The Portland council voted 8-1 to waive the 30-day delay on the ordinance change going into effect, with councilor Ed Suslovic dissenting.