The city council in Portland, ME unanimously approved a new 39-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics this week, a policy that’s specifically intended to protect patients from harassment on the streets outside of a local Planned Parenthood. The emergency measure took effect immediately.
The new buffer zone is a culmination of a months-long campaign to address the persistent anti-abortion harassment in the city. The abortion opponents who regularly gather outside of the Planned Parenthood have had a wide-reaching impact on downtown Portland; in fact, they drove a local restaurant owner out of business in August. Mike Fink closed his popular deli, which used to be down the street from the Planned Parenthood clinic, because the “confrontational” protesters on the block were dissuading customers from visiting his restaurant.
Considering that the protesters were aggressive enough to dissuade Portland residents from buying deli sandwiches, it’s not hard to imagine that they’ve had an even bigger impact on the women who need to access health services at Planned Parenthood. Before the council’s vote on the measure, an OB-GYN explained that many patients actually end up skipping their appointments at the clinic because they’re afraid of the protesters. That point is underlined by a survey that Planned Parenthood recently conducted among about 200 of its patients. Nearly 70 percent of them said they felt “harassed and intimidated” by the protests greeting them at the clinic.
Opponents of the new buffer zone contend that it’s a violation of the protesters’ First Amendment rights. But the women who have faced harassment over their medical decisions disagree.
“It’s not about free speech. It’s about bullying and harassment,” Deena Metzler, a local woman who encountered the protesters last year before she had an abortion procedure at the clinic, told the city council. “We don’t accept this in public schools. We shouldn’t accept it from one adult to another.”
Buffer zones around clinics are becoming an increasingly popular city-level response to this type of damaging harassment outside reproductive health facilities. But they may not be in place for much longer. A Massachusetts law that creates a buffer zone around clinics — the same piece of legislation that Portland’s new law is modeled after — is up before the Supreme Court this year. If the Roberts court decides to strike it down, cities may not have any legal recourse to protect women from being intimidated and shamed when they attempt to enter a clinic.