PORTLAND — Despite a rare show of opposition, an ordinance enacted by the City Council on Monday means anti-abortion protesters now have to carry their picket signs 39 feet away from the entrances to the Planned Parenthood clinic at 443 Congress St.
The ordinance, approved 9-0, creates a protest-free “buffer zone” around reproductive health care facilities. The clinic, the only facility in Portland that performs abortions, has been the target for more than a year of weekly protests that some say harass and threaten patients.
Several councilors described the ordinance as striking a good balance between the protesters’ constitutional rights to free speech and the rights of Planned Parenthood patients to seek health care without being intimidated.
The council vote turned out as widely expected.
Last month, the council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, which drafted the new law, recommended it to the full council by a 4-0 vote. More than 40 members of the public spoke in favor of the ordinance at the committee meeting; no one spoke in opposition.
Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chairs the committee, had predicted – correctly – that the ordinance would be approved by the council in another unanimous vote.
Still, there were some surprises on Monday night.
After nearly two hours of public testimony, Councilor Jill Duson introduced an “emergency” amendment that would make the buffer-zone ban effective immediately – rather than 30 days after approval, the effective date of most new ordinances.
The immediate date was a little too soon for Suslovic. He said he was concerned it wouldn’t allow enough time to provide public notice about the law, which he said has a “high likelihood” of being challenged in court.
But other councilors didn’t share his concern, and the amendment was adopted with Suslovic casting a dissenting vote.
In explaining her amendment and her vote supporting the ordinance, Duson said she had spent time observing the protests, which take place on Friday and sometimes Saturday mornings.
“The atmosphere of intimidation and shaming people who are trying to access health care was happening, right there,” she said.
More than two dozen people who testified seemed to agree with her, recounting stories of intimidation by protesters.
Eric Covey, grassroots organizer for Planned Parenthood in Maine, said the Portland clinic has obtained reports of nearly 200 patients who have been threatened, harassed or made to feel “uncomfortable” by the protesters.
Lynne Schmidt, who writes a blog called “AbortionChat,” said she had obtained an abortion in Virginia, but had considered suicide instead. “And I would have killed myself if I had to face what the women in Portland face,” she said.
Bre Kidman, a Saco resident who worked as a volunteer “greeter” at the Congress Street clinic, said, “a protester told me that they would bound (her) at the knees and lower (her) into a lake of fire. … When (she) came back out (of Planned Parenthood), they told (her) that to help patients, they would wipe the smile off (her) face. If that’s not a threat, I don’t know what is.”
In a surprising twist, the testimony also included pro-ordinance comments from several men who said they had received services from Planned Parenthood.
But the biggest surprise was the testimony of opponents to the ordinance.
While protesters have been vocal on the sidewalk outside Planned Parenthood, they’ve been largely silent in several committee meetings on the ordinance. But on Monday, six people spoke in opposition to the buffer zone.
Some described the ordinance as a form of censorship, favoring the ability of the Planned Parenthood greeters to talk with passers-by, while not allowing protesters the same privilege.
That was a point city staff attorney Trish McAllister previously disputed. Portland’s buffer-zone law, while modeled after a similar ordinance in Burlington, Vt., also forbids the greeters from “counseling” people entering the building, she said.
“The intent is to be content-neutral” about the type of banned communication in the zone, she said.
Opponents were resigned to the council’s decision, but also said they may continue their protests, outside the buffer zone.
“The reason (for the protests) is not to restrict anyone’s access to health care, it’s because children are being murdered,” said Dan Fitzgerald, of Shapleigh.
“Yes, we’re ‘religious fanatics’ … this is something we really care about. But we will abide by the law, as we always have.”