[Sidebar] July 15 - 22, 1999


Discomfort zone

Some choice supporters tout buffer zones as a way to lessen the tension caused by protests at abortion clinics. But critics say buffers would be a dangerous restriction

by Ana Cabrera

Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island

The most visceral images from protests outside abortion clinics are familiar to those on both sides of the debate: pro-life demonstrators shouting at women entering the clinics, flashing grisly images of aborted fetuses and, in some cases, serving as human obstacles by using U-shaped Kryptonite bicycle locks to bind their bodies to a nearby post or fence.

Depending on one's view, the more aggressive of the anti-choice protesters are either well-intentioned activists or dangerous, misguided zealots. But the legal right of abortion opponents to peacefully protest directly outside clinics has never been in doubt.

That would change, however, if a bill in the Massachusetts Legislature, which seeks to create buffer zones around clinics that provide abortions, becomes the first state law of its kind in the nation. The legislation sponsored by by Representative Paul Demakis, (D-Boston), and Senator Susan Fargo, (D-Lincoln), would make it illegal for anyone to stage a protest within 25 feet of the driveways, entrances and exits of clinics.

It's no surprise that the progress of this bill, scheduled for a vote this week by the joint Criminal Justice Committee, is being carefully monitored in Rhode Island by both sides of the abortion debate.

Demakis and other proponents tout buffer zones as a way to lessen tensions around abortion clinics while maintaining the right of pro-lifers to speak out. "There is a whole range of conduct by protesters, from nuns quietly praying to people participating in harassment," Demakis asserts, "and chasing someone as they walk into a clinic is not free speech."

Opponents, though, cite the rambunctious tradition of American protest -- demonstrations against the Vietnam war, for example -- in describing buffer zones as an ill-founded restriction on free speech. Critics also say the buffer zone bill would create more rights for one group by stripping others of their First Amendment rights. In the process, it would undermine the right of people to assemble peacefully -- one of the basic tenets of the Constitution.

"The bill is most likely unconstitutional," says Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "People have a right to engage in a peaceful protest, whether in front of an abortion clinic, the State House, a hospital or any place of business, as long as it's on public property."

State Senator John Celona, (D-North Providence), a pro-life advocate, also thinks the Massachusetts bill is unconstitutional. He believes passage of the bill would lead to similar bills, which would restrict a host of other First Amendment rights. "What would stop anyone from setting up buffer zones around any other building, such as the State House?" he asks. "We could have a hot bill here in the General Assembly, and would that mean everyone has to stand back 25 feet?"

Celona wonders how such a measure would have fared during the height of the state banking crisis. "Just think back to what that was like around here, with people marching up here in droves," he says. "Can you imagine what would have ensued if those people were told to stand back from this building?"

But although existing state and federal laws criminalize attacks, threats and efforts to bar access to abortion clinics, proponents cite the violent extremists of the pro-life movement in explaining their support for buffer zones. The murder last October by a sniper of an abortion doctor, Barnett Slepian, in his home in upstate New York, was a stark reminder of the physical threats faced by some choice supporters.

"In the climate we have today, we need deterrents to violence at the clinics," says Susan Closter-Godoy, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island. "And while we fully support free speech, there are circumstances where there may be physical obstructions and some dangers posed to workers at clinics. So I think some of these measures should be seriously considered."

Closter-Godoy says she is surprised that a buffer zone bill has not already become law in light of the 1994 attack by John Salvi, who shot and killed Shannon Lowney and Lee Anne Nichols, two workers at a reproductive health clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts. But while Demakis says, "Setting buffers provides a certain amount of protection," he concedes they are unlikely to stop someone who is determined to commit violence.

Susan Closter-Godoy

The Demakis-Fargo bill, which would not affect hospitals, raises some complex dilemmas in the minds of lawmakers. Interestingly enough, Demakis points out that some of the 80 co-sponsors of his bill are pro-lifers who share his viewpoint on the issue. Representative Kathleen Teahan, (D-Whitman), is one of them.

Teahan often participates in anti-abortion rallies. "I only believe in peaceful protest," she says, "but I know that people can get overly emotional about this issue and threaten somebody. Even though I don't approve of the fact that women are getting abortions, I feel that we have to provide them a margin of safety while they are trying to enter the clinic."

Conversely, one Rhode Island legislator known for her pro-choice views says her main concern is the Constitutionality of any buffer zone proposal. "I am in favor of anything that would protect a patient's right to access," says Senator Rhoda Perry (D-Providence), "but the right to free speech, the freedom of assembly -- that's the basis of our legal system and must not be compromised."

Elsewhere across the country, two types of measures have been debated to set limits on pro-life protesters: a buffer zone around the facility itself, and a so-called personal "bubble zone," which would encompass any patient or employee of a clinic as they walked, for example, to or from the building and into their cars.

Opponents say that personal bubble zones prevent pro-lifers from quietly approaching patients at clinics and talking with them. Such buffer zones force them, they say, to shout their message across a greater distance, creating a loud atmosphere around a clinic and reducing the effectiveness of their attempts to communicate.

Proponents say personal bubble zones give patients and workers at least a margin of safety by preventing protesters from literally getting in their face. Such comfort room is reason enough to support the creation of buffer zones, supporters say.

But the fault lines in the debate over buffer zones has led to plethora of interpretations, which vary on a case-by-case basis.

Take the case of Schenk v. Pro Choice Network of Western New York, in which the Supreme Court struck down 15-foot personal bubble zones for the workers and patients of that facility. The court, however, upheld 15-foot buffer zones around the clinic's doorways, driveways and parking lot entrances. Chief Justice William Rehnquist argued that the personal bubble zones were at odds with free speech interests, but he allowed that it would still be possible for pro-choicers to get their points across even within the confines of a 15-foot buffer zone.

The situation in the New York case began when the clinic got a restraining order against a number of pickets, who were staging peaceful protests. Rehnquist opined that the buffer zones still allowed pro-lifers to get their message across using non-violent tactics, thus guaranteeing their right to free speech.

In a Pensacola, Florida, case, US District Court Judge Lacey Collier upheld personal bubble zones that would keep anyone at least eight feet from patients and workers at abortion clinics. Those zones were established following the deaths in Pensacola in 1993 and 1994 of Dr. David Gunn, Dr. John Bayard Britton, and a volunteer, James Barret, who were shot and killed by opponents of abortion. Lacey ruled that the personal zones were established by local ordinance in response to the violence and, as such, were not a violation of free speech.

But Senator Catherine Graziano, (D-Providence), a vocal pro-lifer, says bills such as the one sponsored by Demakis are tantamount to a modern-day version of the Salem witch hunts. "I think this is another move on the part of the pro-choice people to make it look like the people who are pro-life are dangerous and violent," she says, "and they are not."

In the gamut of protest methods used by pro-life demonstrators, some typically stand outside of abortion clinics and make overtures in a last-minute attempt to change women's minds about going through with the procedure. Other protesters are more confrontational, attempting to unnerve woman who are already facing a difficult situation.

Some of these methods are visual, such as when demonstrators display graphic photographs of what they say is an aborted fetus. Closter-Godoy says she has also seen pickets darting in and out of traffic in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic on Richmond Street in Providence, causing anxious moments for the drivers and creating a disruptive atmosphere. And while some of the protesters attempt to communicate with the patient in subdued tones, others shout angry accusations and use foul language.

Things have quieted on the local protest front compared with a few years back, when members of the pro-life group Operation Rescue regularly staged demonstrations, sometimes using Kryptonite locks to chain themselves to gates and thereby forcing women to run a gauntlet to enter the clinic building. The free-for-all atmosphere of such protests did little to foster the credibility of pro-lifers.

Donna LeBoeuf

Circumstances have since changed dramatically, says Donna LeBoeuf of Rhode Island Right to Life, who resembles a typical '90s businesswoman with her articulate delivery and attractive attire. Unlike the methods used by Operation Rescue in earlier days, the style of pro-life demonstrators has become more sophisticated and geared to acceptance by the mainstream. If LeBoeuf and members of her organization want to make a point, they are more likely to be spotted at the State House than staging an unruly protest at a clinic.

"We want to participate only in legal, peaceful activities," LeBoeuf says. "Legislation like the one proposed in Boston would make it difficult for us to do that. If you set up a 25-foot limit, then our people are forced to talk louder in order to get our message across. It would make it impossible for us to hand them [women seeking an abortion] a piece of literature."

LeBoeuf thinks the proposed Massachusetts measure is unconstitutional, and calls it "a very heavy-handed thing to do to a particular group." If such a bill were to be introduced in Rhode Island, LeBoeuf says she would spend most of her time at committee meetings, attempting to persuade lawmakers to reject it.

As to the violent incidents, LeBoeuf says she does not condone them. "When we have seen these occasions of terrible violence, a 25-foot buffer zone would not have stopped those incidents," she says. "A buffer zone won't stop someone who is going to act in a violent manner."

LeBoeuf points out that the tactics used by R.I. Right to Life are similar to those used by other pressure groups. "Take a look at Greenpeace," she says, referring to the international environmental group which uses brash, sometimes illegal, interventions and public stunts to publicize issues of concern to the group. "No one argues with them."

But for Closter-Godoy, the ongoing pickets outside Planned Parenthood remain a safety concern, even if the number of demonstrators has dwindled from the massive protests of the '80s. "The numbers don't matter," she says. "It's the manner in which these people comport themselves. This is a heavy traffic area. What will happen if one of the demonstrators caused an accident and people got hurt? This has to stop."

Senator V. Susan Sosnowski, (D-South Kingstown), a pro-lifer, says she would support buffer zone legislation such as the bill being debated in Boston. "I've got mixed feelings about it," says Sosnowski, "because I do agree with the freedom of speech issue. However, when it comes to the safety of my constituents, then I would support such a measure. The amount of space we are talking about -- 25 feet -- really would not make much of a difference in some circumstances, but it is better than nothing at all."

But for the ACLU's Steven Brown and other opponents, even a 25-foot buffer would constitute an unacceptable assault on free speech. "Anti-abortion protesters," Brown says, "have a clear First Amendment right to express their views to the people they feel [who are] most in need to hear it."

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