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Portland's Planned Parenthood Buffer Zone: What's Changed?
01/14/2014   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider a challenge to a 2007 Massachusetts law that established a protest-free zone around reproductive health centers. If the court decides to strike down the law in part or whole, it could dismantle buffer zones in other states and municipalities, including Portland, which enacted an emergency buffer zone ordinance in November. Patty Wight reports now on how that ordinance has affected abortion rights protesters, supporters and local businesses.

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Leslie Sneddon

Abortion prostester Leslie Sneddon (left) hands out leaflets in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Portland.

Most Fridays and Saturday mornings, you can find abortion protesters, like Leslie Sneddon, on the sidewalk in front of the Planned Parenthood Health Center in downtown Portland. Sneddon greets everyone who walks by, holding out informational cards to anyone who will take one.

"Good morning. Here's a couple for you," she says. "Thank you so much."

Ever since the enactment of a new ordinance in November, Sneddon and other protesters have had to stand at least 39 feet away from the entrance to the building. The area is what's known as a buffer zone. Sneddon doesn't like it, but she says it hasn't changed much of anything.

"The only thing that's changed is where we're standing physically, because as you can see, we can still talk to people," she says. "You know, there's been many times that women have come out of here and sat over on this bench, smoked a cigarette or whatever, just taking their time in their decision. And we're still able to reach them."

Sneddon says one thing the ordinance has done is spread their message to multiple locations in front of the building. While she and others stand on the sidewalk in front of Planned Parenthood, another group is across the street, where Daniel Fitzgerald holds up a sign with a picture of a fetus. Fitzgerald agrees the buffer zone hasn't deterred the prosteters' activities.

"This was a special law enacted against us because of our message, not because of our act - yes, they find it offensive, but you know, people find a lot of things offensive. And some things I find offensive, you may not necessarily find offensive," Fitzgerald says.

Marie CoyleBut abortion rights supporters say protesters created an intimidating atmosphere. Marie Coyle (right) is a volunteer greeter for Planned Parenthood. Her job is to escort patients from the sidewalk into the building.

"Before there was a buffer zone, protesters could stand right up to doorway," Coyle says. "They formed a gauntlet up to door that anyone coming in to the building had to walk through just to get inside. There was a lot of yelling, some singing, praying, preaching. They would follow people right up to door, take their picture. It was a very threatening, very hostile environment."

Coyle says the 39-foot buffer zone provides much needed breathing room. "What I see in patients is just a more calm body language," she says. "They aren't crying, they aren't shaking, they aren't yelling back at the protesters. They are just very calmly walking inside. It's a very different atmosphere."

Mike Fink"Oh, it's helped a lot. I like going to work again," says Mike Fink (right), the owner of Guitar Grave, a store next door to Planned Parenthood. Before the buffer zone, Fink says he changed his store hours to avoid the protests and related customer complaints. But now he's open again on Friday mornings.

"I think the buffer zone is great, and it worked a lot," Fink says. "It cut down all the confrontation. They don't verbally confront people the way they did."

But this buffer zone could soon be considered unconstitutional, depending on the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case that involves a Massachusetts law. It was enacted in 2007 after previous attempts to create a protest-free zone outside clinics proved vague and unsuccessful, says Marty Waltz, the CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.

Waltz says the state's 35-foot protest-free zone is similar to buffer zones outside of polling places. "Outside the buffer zone, protests can and do occur," she says, "so this law only regulates where individuals may stand, not what they can say."

Doran LovellPortland Planned Parenthood Site Manager Doran Lovell (left) says she thinks the local city ordinance also strikes the appropriate balance. "The buffer zone, as it's in place now, is serving our patients well," Lovell says. "It's still protecting the protester's right to protest, just in a way that does not directly impact our patients' ability to access care."

Leslie Sneddon says if the Supreme Court does strike down the Massachusetts law, protesters will file suit to overturn the Portland ordinance. Sneddon says she's had four abortions herself, and she wants to reach people right before they go in the door, "because it's the last place before they go in the door," she says. "Here we can still speak to women, but there's a distance."

While we talk, a woman approaches the door to the building, and Sneddon calls to her from 39 feet away. "Wait! 1-800-395 HELP!" she shouts. The woman continues inside and Sneddon returns to handing out cards to passers by.

The Supreme Court will decide whether Sneddon and other protestors' right to free speech is violated by buffer zones when it hears oral arguments on the Massachusetts law starting Wednesday.

Photos: Patty Wight



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