Some Clinics See Uptick in Anti-Choice Harassment, Leading to Calls for More Buffer Zone Laws

Reproductive rights advocates around the country are calling for additional safety measures, such as buffer zone laws, to protect staff and patients at reproductive health-care clinics.

Planned Parenthood in St. Louis, Missouri Larry I / YouTube

As the number of restrictions on reproductive rights across the country has increased in recent years, there has also been, at some clinics, an increase in reports of harassment by anti-choice protesters. The harassment, and in some cases even violence, has caused reproductive rights advocates to call for additional safety measures, such as buffer zone laws, to protect staff and patients at reproductive health-care clinics.

Tom Barry, a spokesperson for a St. Louis Planned Parenthood facility, told Rewire that patients, staff, and escorts at his clinic are increasingly harassed on a daily basis by protesters. “Each day, our patients are subjected to harassment for simply going to the doctor to receive essential health care, including birth control, well women exams, and STD testing,” said Barry. “Protesters use a variety of methods to interfere, including verbal harassment and by creating an environment of confusion for the patient.”

Barry noted that protesters have caused traffic snarls outside the clinic as they attempt to communicate with patients, and vehicles have nearly struck protesters because the drivers were unable to see them.

Erica Kalb, a patient who recently visited the St. Louis Planned Parenthood, told a local news affiliate about the harassment she has experienced. “They called me baby killer,” said Kalb, referring to anti-choice protesters outside the clinic. “I wasn’t even there for [an abortion], I was there for a checkup. She says when she left the clinic protesters attempted to reach into her vehicle. “I shouldn’t feel intimidated whenever I go in to take care of my own body,” she said.

Responding to the reports of harassment, Paula Gianino, president of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, called on city leaders to pass a buffer zone ordinance so police can protect the driveway of any business being picketed. She also encouraged patients to call the mayor’s office to advocate for a new ordinance “so we don’t have the potential for danger for an accident, for tensions to flair,” she told the local news station. “Those kind of things will and do happen.”

The city council of Madison, Wisconsin, recently passed just such an ordinance to help protect individuals entering and exiting clinics. The ordinance created a 160-foot buffer zone around any health-care clinic in the city as well as a floating eight-foot buffer zone around people entering and leaving clinics. Anti-choice groups sued to block the ordinance from taking effect, but a federal judge rejected the request, which leaves the ordinance in place during the legal challenge to its constitutionality.

All told, 15 states and the District of Columbia have laws providing protections specifically for abortion clinics, according to the Guttmacher Institute, though only three states have buffer zone laws: Colorado, Montana, and Massachusetts (whose buffer zone law is currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court).

The harassment of abortion clinic patients and volunteer escorts happens in both red and blue states.

At the Choices Women’s Medical Center in Queens, New York, clinic escorts told the NY City Lens that protesters call them by their names and harass and intimidate them by tracking them down at work or at home. A clinic volunteer who did not reveal her name said escorting can be “hard emotionally when you stand a few feet away from [anti-choice protesters].” Under New York City law, there’s supposed to be a 15-foot buffer zone around health-care clinics, but advocates say it is rarely enforced

Outside the EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville, Kentucky, volunteer escorts have experienced protesters using their elbows, knuckles, shoulders, and hips both covertly, and outright, as a way to get closer to patients. Meg, an escort at the clinic who asked not to use her last name, told Rewire that she thinks sometimes the protesters use physical intimidation “just to punish escorts for taking up the space between” them and the patients.

Meg said that she has heard protesters saying any number of things to shame patients or otherwise prevent them from accessing the clinic’s services. Protesters have targeted people of color, saying they are trying to “kill off the Black race.” They’ve also reportedly told male companions to “be a man, protect your baby” and told children of patients, “You have a brother or sister who looks just like you, and mommy is here to murder it.”

Louisville has no buffer zone ordinance. While escorts think one is needed, they do not harbor any hope of one being created any time soon.

In Englewood, New Jersey, the city council is considering implementing an eight-foot buffer zone around all health-care facilities. City attorney William Bailey told The Record that “[t]here’s a lot of concern over the safety of people there. It does appear that the situation is getting worse.” The Record reports that local law enforcement have received multiple reports of harassing behavior outside Metropolitan Medical Associates, a local abortion provider. Reproductive rights advocates, including volunteer escorts, have been among those working behind the scenes to implement the buffer zone. 

Lauren Rankin, one of the escorts at Metropolitan Medical Associates, told Rewire that protesters outside the clinic will verbally target escorts by name, sexually harass female escorts, and even threaten violence against and physically assault escorts.

Rankin says once while she was escorting a patient, a male protester jumped directly in front of the patient and would not move. “He stood in the patient’s face, screaming,” said Rankin. Even after telling him that he could not block the sidewalk, and that it is illegal to due so, he refused to move. “Another escort and I had to literally take the patient and walk her over ice to get around him.”

“After I was done escorting the patient into the clinic, he walked behind me and called me an ‘evil woman’ and said that I must bring shame to my family.”