Protecting Abortion Clinics – Without a Buffer Zone

2014 902 choice fwProtesters hand out fliers near the entrance to the Choices Women’s Medical Center, which provides abortions and other services, in New York, July 5, 2014. The atmosphere of uncertainty has made advocating for buffer ordinances tough as cities and states have to weigh benefits against the cost of potential lawsuits from well-funded anti-choice groups.

The Supreme Court’s decision striking down the Massachusetts 35-foot abortion clinic buffer zone is barely in the rearview mirror, but the effects are being felt around the country. While Governor Deval Patrick dealt with the decision by quickly signing new legislation in an attempt to provide protections in the small space left by McCullen, some municipalities facing challenges of their own have chosen not to put newly passed laws into effect.

This atmosphere of uncertainty has made advocating for buffer ordinances tough as cities and states have to weigh benefits against the cost of potential lawsuits from well-funded anti-choice groups. With the dueling precedents of Colorado v. Hill – which affirmed Colorado’s 100-foot buffer and was ignored by the Supreme Court – and McCullen, concerned citizens are refocusing their energy on defending individual clinics through volunteer groups, while raising public awareness of picketing.

Megan Delilah, a clinic escort at the Tampa Women’s Health Center in Florida, posts about her experiences with area picketers on social media using the #ProtectTheZone and #NotCounseling hashtags. As a clinic escort, it’s her job to provide a safe space for patients entering the building, and she’s often standing and walking between them and screaming picketers. Her frustration with the McCullen decision has reaffirmed her commitment to showing people what patients go through as they attempt to access legal, necessary medical care.

“The Supreme Court has just emboldened misogynistic bullies and those who would murder clinic workers to continue their assault on the rights of patients seeking sexual health services and abortion to be left alone,” said Delilah. “There’s a reason why the patients I take into the clinic are so happy to see me, and it’s not because anti-choicers are just exercising their right to Free Speech.”

Delilah hasn’t seen an increased level of aggression since the McCullen decision, but she has definitely heard the picketers discussing it.

“The lady with the megaphone really likes to yell about her First Amendment rights and her right to Free Speech,” said Delilah. “She was really yelling about it last week [after the SCOTUS decision]. She thought we’d called the cops on her; we’d actually called about a bomb threat.”

Clinic escorts like Delilah serve at the request of the providers and are trained in non-engagement, de-escalation techniques and local ordinances. They also get to know the behaviors and routines of regular picketers like the one she described with the megaphone. The specific training is what makes their presence calming and effective.

Recently, untrained groups have been cropping up to “counter-protest” without permission – sometimes even after requests from the clinics that they not do so. Boston’s clinics in particular have had to deal with unwanted pro-choice activists on the sidewalks attempting to be supportive by bringing signs and yelling.

The intentions of these rogue groups and individuals like Grayson and Tina Haver Currin – who have been photographing themselves with irreverent signs mocking picketers in North Carolina – may be good, but their presence can escalate an already tense situation.

“This can create confusion or more chaos if the counter protesters are not all peaceful,” said Benita U., a clinic escort organizer in Illinois. “Plus, if the clinic does not want a counter, folks have to respect that. We only counter protest after getting permission from the clinic and rarely at clinics that have an escort program.”

Benita recommends that people moved to get involved by the McCullen decision start by grabbing the phone rather than a sign and a bullhorn.

“Contact your local clinics – start with those that you see protesters at – and ask if they would be interested in having an escort group come out and help,” she said. “Offer to come out on a trial basis first. You can even get free vests and training materials from The Clinic Vest Project.”

For those without escort volunteer opportunities or the disposition to hold to the often-challenging non-engagement training, local abortion funds are a great place to plug in. Thanks to the viral #TacoOrBeerChallenge, a spontaneous fundraising effort by writer and activist Andrea Grimes, abortion funds are experiencing a boost in popularity. Because they work directly with patients and clinics, they can be a great resource for volunteer opportunities.

Finally, even those without the time to volunteer or money to donate can help by doing something very simple: calling to report disturbances. Calls to nonemergency numbers from communities around clinics alerting authorities to harassment and noise ordinance violations must be addressed. Alerting the police department regularly can lead to drive-by patrols and discourage the average picketer who isn’t interested in being arrested.

Local volunteer escort groups are also in need of free, fast support in the form of gratitude. Escorts may be trained not to engage with picketers, but pedestrians with smiles and words of thanks are always welcome. A horn honk and a wave from someone driving by can make a group’s day, especially if it has been a rough shift for the volunteers.

Familiar supportive faces with edible appreciation are typically accepted as well.