PORTLAND — Despite a storm that dumped 10 inches of snow on the city the night before, anti-abortion demonstrators were out in force along Congress Street Friday morning, Dec. 28 – as they have been every Friday since the summer.
They expect to be back this week, too, when a downtown business owner hopes to stage a counter-demonstration of his own.
Last Friday, about a dozen members of Pro-Life Mission of Maine stood outside the Portland clinic of Planned Parenthood, at 443 Congress St. Most held signs showing aborted fetuses. Some recited prayers or sang hymns. A couple of children handed out tracts.
The clinic, which offers a range of reproductive health care, provides abortion services on Fridays.
Nearby stood Mike Fink, a pawnbroker whose shop, Guitar Grave, is next door and who also owns a restaurant a few yards away. Fink said he is organizing what he calls an “anti-anti-abortion” rally for Friday, Jan 4.
Although Fink supports the availability of abortion, he said the reason for his rally is not the demonstrators’ beliefs, but their tactics.
“They’re getting in people’s faces,” he said. “I used to enjoy walking to work on Friday, but not anymore.”
According to Fink, the demonstrators sometimes shout at people entering or leaving the clinic, as well as pedestrians on their way to neighboring businesses or just passing by.
“These stupid people are deliberately trying to be confrontational,” he said in a letter. “… They do not understand that they are aggravating and insulting people and they are not promoting their views in an appropriate place and time.”
Pro-Life Mission organizer Donna Hebert said her group’s members limit themselves to handing out pamphlets and explaining that there are alternatives to abortion.
“Many of us have walked in the shoes (of Planned Parenthood clients),” she said.
While the protesters last week were all from her group, according to Hebert, she said she couldn’t vouch for the behavior of other groups and individuals that sometimes join the demonstrations.
She emphasized that Pro-Life Mission members were standing on the public sidewalk, and said they were careful not to overstep the threshold to the clinic, where a Planned Parenthood volunteer and an off-duty police officer were stationed.
“(The demonstrators) are on their best behavior because you’re here,” the volunteer told a reporter.
While not crossing the threshold, demonstrators have overstepped boundaries in other ways, according to Megan Hannan, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.
“They’ve followed people down the sidewalk, yelling at them,” she said. “Things have gotten out of hand. It makes our patients angry, and it makes other people in the building angry.”
Anti-abortion activists have photographed clinic staff and volunteers, Hannan said, and posted the images online.
She said they’ve also photographed patients in the clinic’s waiting room through its second-floor windows, prompting the clinic to close the window blinds.
“A health-care provider shouldn’t have to shut its windows,” Hannan said. “We want to keep the blinds open.”
Hebert acknowledged that her group’s members sometimes have tried to “communicate” by words or gestures through the windows.
Planned Parenthood moved to the Congress Street office more than a year ago, and the demonstrations began this summer. After that, the clinic hired the off-duty police officer to provide security at the entrance.
While there have been no threats of violence against the clinic, the demonstrations raise that fear, Hannan said.
“The reality is, there are people out there who want to kill Planned Parenthood people,” she said.
Fink said he has seen confrontations that “could have incited violence” and noted that the demonstrator turnout is usually larger – and more vocal – than it was Friday.
“I’m surprised (violence) hasn’t happened already,” he said.
Fink attended a Dec. 19 meeting with Mayor Michael Brennan, other city officials and the building’s owner to explore possible solutions to the situation, including the creation of a protest-free “buffer zone” around the clinic entrance.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has been monitoring the protests and wants to be included in discussions about setting buffer-zone limits, Executive Director Shenna Bellows said on the organization’s Facebook page.
She said city officials need to “tread carefully” to make sure that the rights of the protesters and the clinic’s clients are protected.
Another building tenant, the Portland Regional Chamber, recently held a meeting with neighbors that were concerned about the rights of businesses.
“While we very much value freedom of speech, the universal sentiment was that (businesses) are being disturbed,” PRC Chief Executive Officer Godfrey Wood said. (Wood is married to Karen Wood, publisher of The Forecaster.)
The demonstrations “send a perception of danger” that discourages pedestrians from the block, while disrupting businesses, he said.
“People in our office have said, ‘I just can’t concentrate’ (because of the noise),” Wood said. “That’s not right.”
Meanwhile, Fink is proceeding with plans for his rally on Friday. He’s asking people to carry signs and honk car horns to show their opposition to the anti-abortion demonstrations.
Hebert said she’s unfazed by the reaction.
“We’re here on a rescue mission,” she said. “We would be here with or without the hype.”
(Note: This article has been corrected on the basis of information received after publication.)
Pro-Life Mission of Maine organizer Donna Hebert outside the Portland office of Planned Parenthood on Friday, Dec. 28: “Many of us have walked in the shoes (of Planned Parenthood clients).”
Anti-abortion demonstrators hold signs outside the offices of Planned Parenthood, at 443 Congress St. in Portland on Friday, Dec. 28.