Portland’s new buffer zone ordinance is a lawful and efficient approach to protecting women’s rights to reproductive health care.
Accounts of harassment and intimidation required intervention by the City Council through an ordinance restricting the space where anti-abortion activists can protest. Congress street in downtown Portland has become a virtual war zone in which patients’ rights to safely access health care has been continually threatened.
According to the Portland help center, operated by Planned Parenthood of New England, anti-abortion protesters frequently meet outside the clinic, harassing and intimidating patients as they enter and leave the building. Approximately six months ago, Planned Parenthood supporters packed into City Hall, where a City Council committee considered passing an ordinance that would establish a “patient safety zone” in front of the clinic.
Following an hour of deposition from some 40 people Monday night Nov. 18, Portland City Council members unanimously passed an ordinance establishing a 39-foot protest-free buffer zone around the entrances to Planned Parenthood.This controversial decision was enacted as an emergency measure and went into effect immediately. The goal of the ordinance is to protect the privacy and safety of patients and staff, while protecting protesters’ freedom of speech. Though protesters will be required to move back, their rights to freely speak and assemble will not be infringed upon.
Protest free buffer zones are commonplace for Planned Parenthood, with locations around the country instituting them. Three states and numerous cities nationwide have passed various buffer zone laws, each with different distance restrictions. Portland’s new ordinance was based on a similar ordinance enacted in Burlington, Vermont, which has survived several constitutional challenges. Beginning in January of next year, the U.S. Supreme Court will examine a similar buffer law in Massachusetts, which prohibits protests within 35 feet of abortion clinics statewide. This legal battle could have significant implications for buffer zone laws around the nation, including Portland’s new emergency ordinance.
Moral debates on the legality of abortion are irrelevant to the discussion of Portland’s buffer ordinance. Debates should focus on the constitutionality and effectiveness of an ordinance that restricts the space in which activists can protest. While the constitutionality of Portland’s ordinance is debatable until the Supreme Court rules on the buffer zone law in Massachusetts, numerous federal district courts already have ruled that it is not a violation of the First Amendment to simply move protesters back a bit. Protester voices will still be heard, yet protection from harassment and intimidation will be given to law abiding citizens looking for treatment.
Signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act makes it illegal to use intimidation or physical force in an attempt to prevent individuals from entering a facility that provides reproductive health services. Since activists in Portland often used threats of violence and intimidation tactics to protest, they have been in direct violation of FACE; the new ordinance will force protesters to be more compliant.
Not only has the buffer zone ordinance made it easier for people seeking treatment, it has made it easier for Portland police to uphold FACE. A responsibility that has been considered controversial, as the exact meaning of harassment, or intimidation, is not defined in the act. One group’s peaceful protesting may look like intimidation to others, and hazy definitions of free speech or harassment can muddy the water for even the most veteran law enforcement officer. Thanks to Portland’s new ordinance, police officers will no longer have to make difficult decisions about whether protesters have become too threatening for passers-by and what actions they should take.
Ample testimony from staffers at Planned Parenthood, patients and community members convinced Portland’s City Council that anti-abortion activists have gone too far with their actions outside the Congress street reproductive health clinic. Councilors recognized violent tactics from protesters to have intimidated patients seeking health care on Congress street, making it difficult to get into the facility at times. Protester intimidation is unlawful according to FACE.
The new buffer zone still allows peaceful protests to take place at a distance where their message can be heard outside Planned Parenthood, yet it protects the right of women to receive reproductive health care services like abortion, a service that has been guaranteed since the Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade in 1973. Portland’s City Councilors should be commended for their just and courageous action.
Bryan Bonin is a senior political science major with a concentration in law