Abortion Clinic Buffer Zone Law Moves Forward in Portland, Maine

The Portland City Council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee unanimously passed an ordinance establishing a 39-foot "patient safety zone" outside the women’s health clinic.

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

Patients at the Planned Parenthood in Portland, Maine, are one step closer to being legally protected against harassment by anti-abortion protesters.

The Portland City Council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee unanimously passed an ordinance October 8th establishing a 39-foot “patient safety zone” outside the clinic, which has been routinely targeted by protesters affiliated with the anti-choice Center for Bioethical Reform and Pro-Life Missionaries of Maine.

The ordinance will proceed to the full council for a vote on November 18. Councilor and committee chair Ed Suslovic told the Bangor Daily News that he expects the council to unanimously approve the ordinance at that meeting.

“For over a year now, our downtown Portland health center has had increasingly hostile protest activity that has interfered with our patients’ ability to access reproductive health care,” Eric Covey, grassroots organizer with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, told Rewire. “The recent move to recommend the ordinance to the rest of the city council is an incredible move forward and an amazing show of support from the Portland community.”

More than 40 people offered public comments at last week’s committee meeting, and everyone who spoke was in favor of establishing the buffer zone.

“Many who spoke had very compelling stories with regard to having experienced what they repeatedly referred to as a ‘gauntlet’ of protesters,” Deputy City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian told Rewire in an email.

“Almost everybody talked about how they had felt intimidated, avoided appointments, or didn’t want to have to walk down that street with those people there,” said Mike Fink, who attended the meeting and owns a pawn shop next door to the Planned Parenthood. Fink has organized counter-protests against the anti-choice protesters in the past, but says he stopped in part because the extra attention made things worse for patients.

The protests also led Fink to close a restaurant he owned. “It didn’t make sense to keep selling sandwiches with kids holding posters of dead babies out front,” he said.

The protests took place weekly, on Friday and Saturday mornings, which is when abortions are performed at the clinic. About 20 protesters, adults and children, typically attended, but sometimes there were as few as eight and as many as 40.

“Patients sometimes come to us in tears, talking about experiences they have being verbally harassed and intimidated by protesters, shouted at, had their picture taken,” said Covey. “They’ve had to walk through a pretty harrowing gauntlet just to get into the front door.”

The Planned Parenthood clinic surveyed 161 patients, 150 of whom said they were made to feel “uncomfortable” by the protesters.

“A number of patients expressed that, first, their access was being blocked, and second, that their safety was being threatened,” Zachary Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, told Rewire.

Chief of Police Michael Sauschuck told the city council committee that police officers often faced difficult decisions about whether the harassment actually warranted criminal prosecution. Despite police presence at the clinic, Heiden said, Planned Parenthood employees and patients still reported feeling that their access and safety had been compromised.

Leslie Sneddon, an organizer of the anti-abortion protests, told the Maine Public Broadcasting Network that the buffer zone “criminalizes pro-life expression while making explicit exemption for the advocates of abortion.”

However, Heiden said that the ordinance is viewpoint-neutral, meaning in this case that it does not discriminate based on whether protesters are for or against abortion.

Heiden said Portland’s buffer zone ordinance is very similar to laws in Burlington, Vermont, and Worcester, Massachusetts—laws that “were created with existing Supreme Court First Amendment jurisprudence in mind.”

While the Pro-Life Missionaries of Maine have threatened legal action against the buffer zone, similar laws have been upheld in courts of appeal.

The Massachusetts law still faces a Supreme Court challenge, however, and if it fails under the Roberts Court, the legal fate of Portland’s buffer zone may be an open question.