Portland, Maine, Considers Proposal for Buffer Zone Around Abortion Clinic

The Portland city council has agreed to proceed with public comment regarding a potential buffer zone to protect patients of the city's abortion clinic from being harassed and intimidated by anti-choice protesters.

Friday's ruling leaves in place a new ordinance that creates buffer zones at entrances to health-care facilities in the city while a legal challenge to its constitutionality moves forward. Traffic cone via Shutterstock

At a Tuesday meeting, the city council in Portland, Maine, discussed the possibility of enacting a 35-foot buffer zone around the city’s one abortion clinic to protect patients from being harassed and intimidated. After a year of intense protest by anti-choice advocates at the clinic, the council agreed to proceed with public comment on the proposal.

The sidewalk area outside Portland’s Planned Parenthood of Northern New England health center has become so combative that the owner of one local business has considered selling or closing his restaurant and some patients have said they fear visiting the provider. At issue is the growing presence of Pro-Life Missionaries of Maine, which for the past year has been a familiar presence at the clinic, at first showing up once a week and then twice a week. Typically, ten to 25 “missionaries” visit the clinic at a time, often carrying graphic signs and aggressively “preaching” to patients. The protesters have also been accused of photographing and videotaping people without permission, and screaming at individuals who enter the clinic. At Tuesday’s meeting, representatives from Planned Parenthood presented forms from 161 patients who have complained about the protesters outside the clinic.

“We certainly do have a group of individuals that feel intimidated or harassed,”¬†Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck told the Portland Press Herald, speaking of the situation outside the clinic. A city council subcommittee asked the city’s police department to look into what other cities that have had problems with anti-choice harassment outside abortion clinics have done to address the problem.

Pro-Life Missionaries of Maine member Leslie Sneddon told the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, “If any of us gets out of line, we are quick to go up and take the person aside and say, ‘Hey, cool your behavior, we’re supposed to be servants of the Lord.’ Or if anybody is obstructing the sidewalk, we’ll quickly tell each other, ‘Hey get out of the sidewalk.'”

The Portland Press Herald‘s editorial board supports the buffer zone:

Last winter, we advised caution, encouraging city officials to be mindful of the First Amendment rights of the protesters as well as the rights of Planned Parenthood’s patients. We still advise city officials to be careful, but as the protests have continued, we believe that everyone’s rights can be best protected if the two sides were separated.The protesters hold signs and shout slogans. Without permission, they photograph and videotape patients who are trying to enter. They speak directly to the women entering the clinic, attempting to influence their choices. While this may not violate the Maine law that prohibits physically obstructing the entrance of a medical facility, it also goes beyond the political speech that the First Amendment is designed to protect.

Although some of the city council members discussed the precedent set by the Supreme Court’s decision to review Massachusetts’ buffer zone law, the council decided to move forward with the proposal, setting a public comment meeting for October.

Pro-Life Missionaries of Maine has said if the buffer zone rule goes into effect it will fight the law in court.

Correction: A version of this article incorrectly identified Leslie Sneddon as the head of Pro-Life Missionaries of Maine. She is in fact a member of the group. We regret the error.