Women's Clinics Seek Greater Protection

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The scene outside the Ambulatory Surgery Center of Brooklyn was much the same as every Saturday morning outside the Sunset Park facility that performs abortions. A woman in a blue baseball cap, with a rosary strung around her neck, approached any young woman happening by with a “Would you like some information, ma'am?” and handed out a leaflet promising “Pregnant?…Worried? We'll Help!” Nearby, two of her associates prayed silently, surrounded by placards of dismembered fetuses and a large framed poster of Jesus.

The protestors, members of a group called Helpers of God's Precious Infants, founded by Brooklyn priest Monsignor Philip Reilly, are part of a quiet war that has been playing out for more than two decades on the sidewalks outside New York City health clinics that provide abortions. This fall – just in time for a seven-week-long nationwide campaign by anti-abortion activists dubbed “40 Days for Life” – City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and several other councilmembers have introduced a Clinic Access Bill to further delineate the ground rules about where the right to protest leaves off and the right to freely access health care begins.

“A lot of women who were going to reproductive health clinics were subject to intimidation and harassment, and physical obstruction at times,” says Jeremy Drucker, spokesman for Queens Councilwoman Helen Sears, who chairs Council's Women's Issues Committee and co-sponsored the bill. It would amend the civil rights title of the city administrative code and “cleans up the language and clarifies exactly what protestors can and can't do,” Drucker said.

Stephanie Miller, an attorney who volunteers as a patient escort at Ambulatory, says she's hopeful that by giving clinic staff, rather than only patients themselves, the ability to file complaints against anti-abortion demonstrators, the amended law will help dissuade some of the more aggressive sidewalk counselors. “If someone persists beyond 'No, I'm not interested, please leave me alone,' I think it's really uncalled for,” says Miller.
Whether the new legislation will make a dramatic difference outside clinics, though, is less clear. Quinn's bill expands the existing prohibition on blocking women's health facility entrances to include parking lots and driveways. But clinic protest experts note that large-scale blockades in the style of Operation Rescue largely faded from the scene in the mid-'90s, after the passage of the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act specifically outlawed the use of “force, threat of force or physical obstruction” to block access to reproductive health services. Since then, anti-abortion groups in the city have largely focused on trying to divert women from health clinics by other means: Longtime clinic opponent Chris Slattery, for example, has even taken to setting up a mobile 3-D ultrasound machine outside one south Bronx clinic to show pregnant women images of their “babies.” Slattery, who operates several anti-abortion counseling facilities, is spearheading local “40 Days for Life” efforts against so-called “abortion mills,” but he and other anti-abortion leaders did not answer requests for interviews.

This sort of protest would still be legal under the Quinn bill. In fact, that's one reason why the New York Civil Liberties Union has endorsed it. The group had testified against a 2001 bill, introduced by then-Councilwoman Kathryn Freed, which would have created a 50-foot “buffer zone” outside clinic entrances where it would be illegal to approach anyone without consent, hand out flyers, or display signs. The Quinn bill, by contrast, “doesn't implicate the right to protest,” explains Galen Sherwin, director of the NYCLU's reproductive rights project.

In fact, says Sherwin, the new law would in some ways allow greater leeway for anti-abortion activists farther from clinics, in exchange for a more cleanly enforceable law. “The current law says you can't follow or harass someone intending to get reproductive health services, but it's always a difficult thing to prove intent.” By replacing that language with a blanket restriction on following or harassing anyone within 15 feet of a clinic entrance, she says, the lines are more clearly drawn – though it's worth noting that the new legislation would not limit either “prayer vigils” of the type being carried out as part of “40 Days for Life,” nor sidewalk counseling so long as protestors kept at least 15 feet from all clinic doors.

The next step for the bill is the Council's civil rights committee, which is working to schedule a date in November, according to the office of committee chair Larry Seabrook. Given that the bill already has 27 sponsors, it will likely take a major outpouring of lobbying to block its passage. Whether it will change the situation at Sunset Park and other clinics, though, remains to be seen.

– Neil deMause