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Downtown Abortion Clinic Protests Prompt Look by Portland City Council
07/29/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Portland city councilors will be taking up the issue of anti-abortion protests outside a downtown clinic when they meet Tuesday night. Members of the council's Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee will discuss what's described on the City Council Web site as "information regarding protests outside Planned Parenthood." That refers to Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, which describes itself as the "largest reproductive health care and sexuality education provider and advocate in northern New England." Among the services it offers are abortions, and this has prompted pro-life demontrators to hold weekly protests on the street right outside the agency's Congress Street headquarters for the last 12 months. Tom Porter has more.

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Downtown Abortion Clinic Protests Prompt Look by P Listen
 Duration:
3:14

This video clip, above, posted to YouTube, gives an idea of what people heading into the building on a Friday or Saturday morning might expect. "Men don't kill their children, they're supposed to protect families... we don't kill children."

"The escalating protest activity outside of the downtown health center here at 443 Congress Street has created a really difficult environment for our patients," says Eric Covey, a grassroots organizer for Planned Parenthood.

He says that patients coming into the center during the protests complain of feeling harrassed, intimidated and unsafe due to the presence of the protestors so close to the clinic's entrance.

"It presents a tremendous barrier to access for many of our patients, who would have to walk the gauntlet just to enter the front door of the health center," Covey says.

Local business owner Mike Fink says he's had enough of the protestors. "It's really offensive how they attack young women who walk down the street," he says.

Tom Porter: "Verbally, though, not physically?"

Mike Fink: "Right, correct, yes - well, kind of physically too, 'cause they crouch around near them and try to get in front of them so they can't walk quickly along the street. And they scream at them about how it's wrong to have an abortion, they can help."

Fink runs Mike's Rock Deli, a sandwich shop two doors down from the entrance to Planned Parenthood. He says he's going to to close it next month, partly because it's not making a lot of money, "but because also I just don't want to spend the mornings here any more and see these stupid protestors out front, and start thinking about the stupid things I think about yelling and screaming at them."

Fink says he will join other Planned Parenthood supporters who want to see a Patient Safety Ordinance created. It would establish a 35-foot buffer zone around the clinic, requiring the protestors to keep their distance. Fink hopes it will mean they'll have to stand across the street in Monument Square.

"It's a clear violation of pro-lifers' First Amendment rights," says Leslie Sneddon of the Pro-Life Missionaries of maine, the group that organizes the demonstrations. She says protestors are the ones now being harrassed. "It criminalizes pro-life expression while making explicit exemption for the advocates of abortion."

If the proposed ordinance is approved, she says, Pro-Life Missinonaries of Maine will take legal action. Sneddon insists that the protestors are not harrassing people going into the clinic - merely offering them advice and anti-abortion leaflets.

Furthermore, she says, the protestors police themselves.

"If any of us gets out of line, we are quick to go up and take the person aside and say, 'Hey, cool your behavior, we're supposed to be servants of the lord,'" she says. "Or if anybody is obstructing the sidewalk, we'll quickly tell each other, 'Hey get out of the sidewalk.'"

Civil liberties advocates admit this particular issue presents something of a delicate balancing act. Rachel Healy is with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

"Any limit on these types of protests on public sidewalks definitely involves balancing the constitutional right of women to access the facility," Healy says, "versus the constitutional right of women to protest."

Healy says she hopes the result of this dialogue is a solution that protects both of those rights. Portland City Council's Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee meets at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday at City Hall.

File photo:  Patty Wight

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