Posted on March 26, 2013 in Perspectives
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A tunnel of protesters spew biblical rhetoric; stoney-faced children hold graphic signs of severed fetuses; a woman silently holds a plastic fetus. For the last several months, anti-abortion protester activity outside of the Portland Planned Parenthood of Northern New England health center has increased to an unprecedented level.
The increase in protesters outside of the health center has prompted PPNNE and many concerned Portland residents to work toward implementing a Patient Safety Zone to protect the privacy and safety of those attempting to access the health center’s services. The proposed Patient Safety Zone would create a 35-foot buffer around the entrance to the Portland health center on Congress Street. Neither anti-abortion nor abortion rights protesters would be allowed to demonstrate within that space.
The Portland health center, located at 443 Congress St., shares the building with several other offices, connected by the same lobby. Bre Kidman works in one of those offices and began volunteering at the Portland health center after being harassed simply for entering the building. Kidman characterized the protesters’ tactics as “an ambush.” She described the signs the protesters held as “the most gruesome depiction [of abortion] you can think about.”
Kidman volunteers as a greeter outside of the health center. Greeters wear neon pink vests and are stationed at the entrance of the building and at the corner of Elm and Congress Street. Ideally, they meet patients before they guide them through the protesters. The health center started their greeter program as a direct response to the anti-abortion protesters last fall.
Maria Sedler, a senior anthropology major, recently started working as a greeter for the health center. She became interested in volunteering at PPNNE after recent political attacks on the organization on a national and local level.
“I’ve seen them chase people up to the doorway holding out their signs screaming things like ‘There’s still time. Don’t kill your baby,’ ‘You’ll regret this the rest of your life,’” said Sedler.
Although the protesters say that they are there to educate and minister to patients, Kate Milke, a senior nursing student who also works as a Health Care Associate at the Portland health center, said their actions are being perceived as a threat. She described a recent incident in which the protesters quickly approached a woman and her teenage daughter. The mother perceived the protesters were physically threatening her daughter and pushed one of them away. The protester has since filed an assault charge on the mother.
Milke, speaking for herself and not for PPNNE, believed that the protester activity is harassment, not education.
“As far as I can tell, the protesters are trying to talk women, who have already made up their mind about terminating their pregnancy, out of having abortions,” she said. “As a result they may make women feel guilt or shame about their choice, but they don’t necessarily change their mind.”
Sedler echoed that sentiment. “Their signage is intended to frighten, shame and disturb,” she said.
Issues of privacy and safety also extend to volunteers and employees of the health center. Featured on the Pro-Life Missionaries of Maine Facebook page are photographs of Sedler, other greeters and patients entering the building.
“I was warned about the high likelihood of my picture being taken before I signed up,” she said. “My privacy is being violated, but not to the same degree as someone entering a health center for confidential services.” Sedler said most recently the greeters have been given laminated signs to shield patients’ faces if necessary.
Milke also expressed concern for her own safety. “I personally feel threatened when they take our pictures and post them on their Facebook page. It looks as though they are trying to make [the PPNNE employees] public targets.”
“I am proud to do the work that I do, but I don’t want to be easily identified as a Planned Parenthood worker to a population of people who might try to do me harm,” added Milke.
The protester activity, though out of sight, often follows the patients inside the health center, according to Milke. Patients can frequently hear the religious rhetoric of the protesters while in the waiting room. “Patients’ reactions range from annoyed to very distraught and tearful. I have spent a lot of time talking people down from an upsetting encounter with protesters.”
For now, city of Portland officials have been hesitant to support a buffer zone. The city’s mayor, Michael Brennan, and the chair of the Public Safety, Health and Human Services committee, city councilman Edward Suslovic, have said a 35-foot buffer zone should be a last resort.
Sedler attended a meeting of the Public Safety, Health and Human Services committee and spoke with Suslovic. “He was generally dismissive. He repeatedly expressed concern that the protestors would sue if we succeeded in passing the buffer zone ordinance.”
PPNNE has been paying for a police officer to be stationed outside of the health center on Fridays, but according to Eric Covey, the Maine grassroots organizer for PPNNE, it wouldn’t be “economically feasible” to pay for an officer on Saturdays.
Trish McAllister, Portland’s neighborhood prosecutor, and the police department have said that the police presence on Fridays is working because there haven’t been any arrests. However, in order for an arrest to happen, an individual patient needs to file a complaint of harassment against an individual protester. From there, the patient would need to testify in court about the incident, compromising their own privacy.
Portland would not be alone in enacting an ordinance to protect patients of PPNNE.
Three states and several municipalities have passed similar legislation. An ordinance took effect in August in Burlington, Vt. which limited how close to reproductive health care facilities protesters could “Demonstrate, picket, congregate and patrol.”
Six individuals opposed to abortion sued the city but in February a federal judge upheld the law.
Perhaps even more exciting are recent events in Massachusetts where a state-wide 35-foot buffer zone law was upheld in January. Not only is the scope of the law important, but the state of Maine shares the same federal court district as Massachusetts. If the city were to be sued for enacting such a law, the precedent is in favor of a buffer zone.
Covey brought up an important point that people tend to forget – that while free speech is a protected right, so is access to reproductive health services. In 1992, the Supreme Court upheld the idea that abortion access is a constitutional right in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The proposed law in Portland would not simply be a restriction on people’s rights, but a compromise between two equally important rights.
Milke also advocated for the Patient Safety Zone. “I support the protesters’ right for civil engagement and free speech, but their civil engagement can be as effective and less threatening for patients if it occurs across the street,” she said. “This kind of behavior would not be acceptable outside of an ophthalmologist’s office. Why is it acceptable in the case of legal abortion?”
The PPNNE health center in Portland is not just an important resource for the greater Portland area, it is also important for the reproductive health of USM students. Many Portland-based students may find it is a lot more convenient to go to the health center downtown than to get to the Portland campus and then take the shuttle bus to Gorham. The hours of the USM health center aren’t exactly accessible for students balancing class and a job –– it closes at 4:30 and isn’t open on Saturdays. Not to mention, the health center isn’t open at all during the entire summer.
We live in a time where abortion is legal, but not accessible. We need to be unapologetic about those who provide abortion services in our community and we need to support them. Often, when federal funding for Planned Parenthood is debated, liberal activists point out the fact that a very small percentage of their services is abortion. The sign on the street advertising the health center doesn’t even mention the abortion services PPNNE provides there. All of this points to the idea that there is something shameful or wrong about accessing a legal medical intervention. Access to abortion is a controversial but constitutional right, and we as a community need to do what we can to protect it.