“It Will Be Ugly, And It Will Escalate”: Buffer Zones, Clinic Escorting, And The Myth Of The Quiet Sidewalk Counselors
The Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts “buffer zone” law — which barred antiabortion protests immediately outside clinics. Justice Scalia portrayed the law as hindering ‘sidewalk counselors’ who lovingly entreated women to consider alternatives. This portrayal, embodied by the grandmotherly petitioner, allowed some to view the decision as protecting gentle civility. Referencing one particular Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston, this “quiet counseling” was seen as well-intentioned, and, more importantly, constitutional.
It is also a myth — or at least a dramatic euphemism that applies to very few at the Boston site. I should know. I was there.
For four years, I volunteered as an escort on Saturday mornings. The scene described in the court — like a delusional game of telephone — was drastically different from reality.
Our mornings were mostly spent scanning the streets, attempting to spot patients before they approached the zealous spectacle. We’d tactfully ask if they were looking for the clinic, and walk them through the crowd.
Saturdays were favored by protesters, so escorts arrived in the early morning. Wearing identifying vests, we flanked the entrance and greeted patients outside the zone. Two would rotate to the back to watch the garage entrance, where only the more tenacious protestors wandered. We’d accompany patients up the long walk to the front, usually trailed by someone asking if Satan sent us. (He didn’t.)
During the freezing New England winters, we would briefly warm up inside, but were mostly left to stomp our feet and count how many toes we could feel. Once a month, a Christian band would show up, surreally, and hold a concert.
We knew the “quiet counseling” well. “Just like Auschwitz,” one would say, “you’re delivering them right into the furnace.” This particular protester would speak right into her ear — until he approached the painted line on the ground.
Sometimes, a male accompanying a patient would lose his cool. He could have been her boyfriend or brother. We didn’t know and never asked. Once they entered, the doors could burst back open and he would charge whichever protestor called his companion a whore. We would intervene.
Justice Alito felt the law represented “viewpoint discrimination” — constitutionally, one message can’t be favored over another. But as an escort, I never talked about abortion, even outside the zone. When guiding patients, I would detail what they could expect. I didn’t offer my perspective, or even criticize the protestors. My goal was to provide a calming presence seconds before what would be one of the more trying moments of their lives. I explained how to access the clinic, and maintained a low patter to distract them from strangers calling them beasts and murderers. If they were confused by the protestors’ Boston Police hats, we cleared that up too.
If the patient was African-American, the protestors said they were “lynching” their child. If the protestor was crying, they said the tears would never stop, even in hell. If a patient was with her mother, they thanked the mother — for not killing her own baby.
Surprisingly, those Saturdays were not without their lighter moments. For a group dedicated to attacking Planned Parenthood — a multi-purpose clinic — they seemed stunned when someone wasn’t seeking an abortion. “You’ll never be the same. You’ll always be a dirty killer,” one would say. A startled patient would respond, “Why would a Pap smear make me a dirty killer?” Many others sought birth control — though they didn’t approve of that either.
This is not to paint all protesters as unhinged. I still remember one young priest who didn’t condemn me and chose instead to make small talk — which we continued periodically. Another time, upon news of the Columbia shuttle deteriorating upon reentry, we all shared a collective moment of humanity.
Being in a college area, there were counter-protestors (also kept out of the buffer zone) — who promoted pro-choice politics through direct and shocking slogans. Many of us didn’t care for them either. We just wanted calm in an atmosphere of invective and hysteria.
The desire for calm stemmed, in part, from the 1994 Brookline shootings. The victims were known by some of my fellow volunteers. This very real risk led the police to call for a buffer zone. One of the victims, a 25-year-old receptionist, was not just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The murder was premeditated; her killer focused on her.
Even when I was there, clinic staff driving up would be greeted with protestors filming them and, not so subtly, stating the staffer’s home address. Those were the more chilling moments.
It is difficult (though not impossible) to argue that a unanimous Supreme Court case was wrongly decided. After all, it is a broad law. But that is not my goal. Instead, I’m writing to dispel the myth painted of Good Samaritans softly offering a helping hand. In the public relations war over whether the affected individuals were compassionate counselors or marauding bullies, many justices seemed to accept the former characterization.
The law was overturned as an overreaching infringement on free speech. Is this a free speech issue? Yes, of course it is. But as others have pointed out, buffer zones exist elsewhere, including outside the Supreme Court. Favoring free speech, the Court famously allowed Nazis to march in Illinois and, more recently, the Phelps church to picket funerals (at a distance). But parades and funerals eventually end. Here, the Court risks turning clinic entrances into permanently hostile environments — inciting those who have spent weeks agonizing over their decision. They overturned the express wishes of an elected legislature — including pro-life lawmakers who supported the measure in the interest of public safety.
Similar zones were upheld by the court in 2000, a ruling which was not overturned. Clinic entrances still cannot be blocked, and injunctions are allowed against particularly worrisome parties. Chief Justice Roberts even suggested other mechanisms the state can use in lieu of the zone. But it’s an ever-changing landscape, and those remaining precautions have become the next targets of these quiet counselors. Because, to those that brought the case, speech alone is not the goal.
The grueling decision of whether to have an abortion should never be taken lightly, and there is no shortage of advocates for either side that fill our collective eardrums. But that debate stops a few feet outside the clinic. Just like politicking outside voting booths, these last ditch efforts lose the veneer of debate and become akin to intimidation — which can easily morph into confrontation or devastating anguish. Anyone who wants to stop and chat can do so. But once patients decide to cross the line, they should be left alone. The Court noted that the environment is currently more peaceful than it once was. There’s a reason for that.
None of this is to say that this isn’t a legitimate debate. It is. But those who favor stripping the buffer zone away — what small help it is — shouldn’t kid themselves into thinking that a flood of polite conversation will follow. It will be ugly, and it will escalate.
By: Brian Giacometti, Field-based NGO Program Manager for Governance and Rule of Law; The Huffington Post Blog, July 7, 2014
“A Particularly Cruel Joke”: Texas Lawmakers Celebrate “Achievements” In Women’s Health As Thousands Go Without Care
The consequences of Texas’ sweeping new abortion restrictions are now being felt across the state, but the status of reproductive healthcare in Texas had been dire long before conservative lawmakers passed the omnibus measure to shutter reproductive health clinics, restrict safe abortion services and leave thousands of women without access to necessary care.
Texas lawmakers passed a two-year budget in 2011 that cut $73 million from family planning programs; the following year, Rick Perry dissolved the state’s partnership with the federal Women’s Health Program, forfeiting millions in Medicaid funding for low-income women’s healthcare. Lawmakers restored some of this funding in 2013, but reproductive health providers like Planned Parenthood are barred from receiving it. That Perry has refused the Medicaid expansion has further compounded the crisis that has been building in the state, the blunt impact of which disproportionately impacts low-income women of color.
Republican “reforms” to the system have resulted in a 77 percent drop in the number of women being served by state health clinics at an additional cost of around 20 percent. The maternal mortality rate — particularly among women of color — is on the rise, and Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the nation.
It is in this context that the Texas Health and Human Services committee’s decision to hold a hearing on the “progress” the state has made in women’s healthcare seems like a particularly cruel joke. The committee intends to “build on previous legislative achievements in women’s healthcare,” according to a statement on the hearing.
Activists in the state, who have remained focused on challenging the rollback of reproductive rights in the months since Wendy Davis’ marathon filibuster, descended on Austin Thursday to provide testimony and protest the show hearing.
“When I heard about the hearing — well, I felt like if the Daily Show was going to create a parody, they couldn’t have done a better job,” Amy Kamp, one of the women providing testimony at the hearing, told ThinkProgress. “If Texas wants to protect women’s health, I have a helpful suggestion. Just reinstate the old program we used to have!”
“It’s laughable that the same politicians that have devastated Texas women’s access to healthcare — cancer screenings, birth control, and safe, legal abortion — are now touting their so-called achievements in women’s health,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund. ”If that’s what they call help for Texas women, we’ve had quite enough of it.”
By: Katie McDonough, Assistant Editor, Salon, February 20, 2014
Women in Louisiana could lose all access to abortion services if the state succeeds in enacting a secretive overhaul of its clinic regulations. The requirements are so stringent that every one of the five clinics currently operating in Louisiana would have to close, according to a lawyer advising the clinics. The new regulatory framework would also impose a de facto 30-day waiting period for many women—an exceptional requirement.
“What it amounts to is a back door abortion ban,” said Ellie Schilling, a New Orleans attorney. “The way the [Department of Health and Hospitals] went about passing these regulations was in a secretive and undemocratic way. The public definitely doesn’t know what’s going on.”
DHH enacted the overhaul just before Thanksgiving, when it passed the rules as an emergency measure, effective immediately—exempting them from the normal comment period. None of the clinics were given notice; one heard about the declaration of emergency from anti-abortion protestors.
It isn’t clear what emergency the agency was responding to. There has been virtually no reporting on the new rules, and DHH did not respond to questions submitted Monday. The Declaration of Emergency states that the agency proposed the licensing standards in order to comply with two acts passed by the Louisiana legislature in 2013, but a complete overhaul goes well beyond their demands. DHH formally declared its intentions to make the emergency rules permanent in December.
According to Schilling, the law gives the agency the ability to shut down every existing clinic in Louisiana immediately, by imposing new space requirements that none of the existing clinics meets. Providers would lose some of their rights to appeal noncompliance citations, while new and complex documentation and staffing requirements create more opportunities for DHH to cite clinics for deficiencies. “Deficiencies are used to create this impression of clinics being repeat offenders, and that’s a basis for revoking their license,” explained Schilling.
The regulatory overhaul would also give the state tools to prevent new clinics from getting a license. Proposed facilities—like a $4.2 million Planned Parenthood health center on South Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans—would have to prove to DHH that their services are needed; it’s unclear what criteria the agency would use to determine need. “It certainly seems that one intention is to prohibit Planned Parenthood from entering the market,” Schilling said. (Planned Parenthood clinics in Louisiana do not currently offer abortion services. “We are evaluating all our options” in light of the regulations, a spokesperson said.)
The new rules place a significant, unjustified burden on women by requiring that they undergo blood tests at least a month before an abortion procedure. That means that unless a patient happens to have gone to the doctor previously and had those tests done by chance, she will face a mandatory 30-day waiting period.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s pretty outrageous,” said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute.
Louisiana already has a 20-week cutoff, and so the waiting period could dramatically shorten the window in which women are legally allowed to have abortions. There is no medical rationale for conducting those particular tests so far in advance; they are routinely conducted by providers prior to an abortion, and legislation passed in 2003 that tightened the laws governing Louisiana’s abortion providers stipulated that they had to be done within 30 days of the procedure. To the contrary, forcing women to delay the procedures increases their expense, and raise the risk of complications.
Dozens of other states have passed waiting periods or regulations, known as Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP laws, which single out abortion providers with burdensome rules. But Nash said that a de facto 30 day waiting period combined with requiring clinics to prove need for their services makes Louisiana’s law striking. “It’s a great way to eliminate access,” said Nash.
All that’s stopping the state from completing the overhaul, Schilling said, is going through the motions of a public hearing. One is scheduled for Wednesday morning in Baton Rouge, but bad weather threatens to cancel it. It isn’t clear if the state would hold another hearing, as it was already scheduled at the very end of the comment period. Legal challenges would surely follow, but as Nash warned, rolling back clinic regulations in the courts is challenging.
“As it is right now, you have to go to the major cities to have procedure done. If these clinics close, where will the patients go? Then what are we back to? Back street abortions?” said Missy Cuevas, who is fighting a legal battle with the state after her New Orleans clinic lost its license a little over a year ago. With more than two decades of work in women’s health, Cueva has seen the burden on Louisiana women grow as regulators clamp down. Five to ten women still call every day looking for services, even though she’s been closed for so long.
“If we make it any more difficult, where are the patients going to go—Houston? Atlanta? My patients can’t afford to go to Baton Rouge from New Orleans, much less to Houston or Atlanta. It’s going to force women to go back to what they used to do before, and women will die.”
By: Zoe Carpenter, The Nation, January 27, 2014
“An ‘Impermissible Attempt’ To Coerce Women”: Federal Court Permanently Blocks North Carolina’s Narrated Ultrasound Law
A federal court on Friday permanently blocked a North Carolina law requiring women to undergo coercive counseling and a narrated ultrasound prior to obtaining an abortion. The judge permanently enjoined the unconstitutional law, ruling that “the Act requires providers to deliver the state’s message to women who take steps not to hear it and to women who will be harmed by receiving it with no legitimate purpose.”
United States District Court Judge Catherine Eagles called the law “an impermissible attempt to compel these providers to deliver the state’s message in favor of childbirth and against abortion.”
The decision is a clear victory for doctors and women in the state, and a strong indictment of similar laws intended to pressure or shame women out of accessing basic medical care.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, celebrated the ruling in a statement. “Today’s ruling marks a major victory for North Carolina women and sends a message to lawmakers across the country: it is unconstitutional for politicians to interfere in a woman’s personal medical decisions,” she said. “This dangerous law would have required abortion providers to perform an ultrasound and place the image in the woman’s line of sight — even if she asks not to view it. The provider would then be required to describe the image in detail — even over the woman’s objection. It made no exceptions for women under any circumstances, including cases of rape, incest, or those who receive a tragic diagnosis during pregnancy.”
The North Carolina law was a clear overstep, but as Salon has previously noted, forced ultrasound laws do virtually nothing to influence women’s choices, making them little more than intentionally punitive policies intended to shame women for making sound medical choices.
By: Katie McDonough, Salon, January 17, 2014
Question: How do you get politicians to pay attention to issues that matter to women?
Answer: Get them elected — or defeated.
A month from now, voters in two states will go to the polls to elect a governor. In Virginia, Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is facing Democrat Terry McAuliffe; and in New Jersey, Democratic State Senator Barbara Buono is running against Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
Both campaigns know they can’t win without strong support from women.
According to the National Journal:
In New Jersey and Virginia — the two states with gubernatorial elections this year — women made up more than half of the 2009 turnout (52 percent in Virginia and 53 percent in New Jersey), ensuring an intense competition for their votes in 2013. These battles will be closely watched as the national Republican Party seeks to boost its appeal to women and to lay a positive foundation for the 2014 midterm elections.
If the Republicans sweep the 2013 contests, you’ll be reading blog posts here and seeing pundits on TV saying that the GOP and the Tea Party have gained valuable momentum for 2014. That’s why the financiers of the Republican war on women are doubling down in Virginia and New Jersey today.
As I wrote in Politico back in June,
The anti-abortion rights group that calls itself the Susan B. Anthony List has announced plans to make this year’s statewide elections in Virginia a “template” for rolling out national strategies in 2014. It plans to spend $1.5 million to elect Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli governor and political gadfly E.W. Jackson lieutenant governor.Would Susan B. Anthony agree with Cuccinelli, who frequently attacks Planned Parenthood, charging that they have “an open willingness to participate in human trafficking?” Or that the “homosexual agenda … brings nothing but self-destruction, not only physically but of their soul?”
Would Susan B. Anthony stand by Jackson, who called Planned Parenthood “more lethal to black lives than the KKK ever was?”
I know about Susan B. Anthony. Susan B. Anthony is a hero of mine. This List is no Susan B. Anthony.
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, the race is between a tireless champion for women’s rights, Barbara Buono, and Chris Christie, the first anti-choice governor of New Jersey since Roe v. Wade
Chris Christie cut $7.5 million in funding for family planning service, and used his veto pen on marriage equality legislation, equal pay laws and a minimum wage increase while signing off on a record $1.57 billion in corporate tax cuts.
Like Barbara Buono, Terry McAuliffe is providing a clear contrast to a candidate with a record of attacks on women’s rights.
A New Republic article headlined “Ken Cuccinelli’s Record on Women’s Issues Is As Bad As Ever” says:
Cuccinelli does not support a rape and incest exception to abortion bans. He does not see the need for the state to fund Planned Parenthood — which provides services as wide-ranging as HIV testing, prenatal care, and adoption referrals for thousands of women living in the Commonwealth.He has supported legislation that would allow pharmacists to refuse to provide emergency contraception if it violates their conscience, and feels employers should be able to dictate whether the health insurance plans they offer cover contraception. He pushed legislation that would have banned third-trimester abortions in Virginia, even in emergencies that endangered the life of the mother.
Four years ago, he had the opportunity to help amend Virginia law in a way that would make sex with minors a more serious offense; he opted instead to defend the statute lawmakers were trying to replace, an unconstitutional state ban on sodomy. He is silent on whether he supports equal pay legislation.
Cuccinelli demanded that Virginia institute a mandatory transvaginal ultrasound law, which has rightly been characterized as state-sponsored rape, is a zealous proponent of TRAP laws designed to shutter abortion clinics, and even supported a law that would have criminalized later-term abortions including those necessary to save a pregnant woman’s life.
Ken Cuccinelli was one of only three state attorneys general to refuse to sign on to a bipartisan letter urging Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. His relentless focus on restricting women’s health care caused the Washington Post to call him “the most overtly partisan Attorney General in Virginia’s history.”
Elections matter in this country for a wide range of reasons. They codify our values and priorities as a society and help determine our future. They put the breaks on destructive policies and fuel the progress of urgently needed solutions.
My message to women in Virginia and New Jersey is that these elections are doubly important, because not only will they set the path that these two states will follow, but they will also deliver a verdict on the politics of division and sexism that Republicans think is a winning formula for 2014, 2016 and beyond.
Your vote is your voice. Use it!
By: Terry O’Neill, President, National Organization for Women; The Huffington post Blog, September 25, 2013