The Burlington chapter of Planned Parenthood wants a buffer zone around its new downtown offices to keep anti-abortion demonstrators from approaching patients and staff.
On Monday, the City Council will take up an ordinance that would create a 35-foot "patient safety zone" around the St. Paul Street building.
Jill Krowinski, director of Vermont public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, says more patients and staff have reported being harassed by anti-abortion demonstrators since the organization moved its offices downtown last fall. She says it's a privacy problem and a "serous public safety issue."
"They're walking up to people on the sidewalk, asking them what they're doing at the health center, giving them misinformation about medical procedures and the outcomes of it," says Krowinski, who also represents Burlington in the state legislature.
Planned Parenthood now shares a building with a hair salon and other offices, some of whom have also complained about the protesters, Krowinski says.
"We had a complaint from a client of the hair salon that's also in the building," Krowinski says. "She was getting out of her car and she was approached by an individual asking if she was here for an abortion and she said, 'I'm here to get my bangs trimmed.'"
Under the ordinance, picketers would be banned from coming within 35 feet of the building — effectively putting them across St. Paul Street. Breaching the buffer zone would be punishable by fines of $50 to $500 per offense.
Leaders of pro-life groups who picket and hold prayer vigils outside Planned Parenthood tell a vastly different story. They deny intimidating anyone and claim it's their members who are being harassed for exercising their constitutional right to free speech.
The problem isn't new for Planned Parenthood. When its offices were on Mansfield Avenue, staff and patients reported feeling threatened and intimidated by anti-abortion demonstrators. But Krowinski says it's worse in the new location. She believes the uptick in protest activity is as a result of Planned Parenthood's more prominent location downtown and the renewed national debate over access to contraception and reproductive rights.
Krowinski says Planned Parenthood has called Burlington police on at least one occasion since relocating, following a confrontation with a protester. But it's unclear how big of a law enforcement problem the protesters represent — or whether they've caused problems at all. (Phone messages left at Burlington P.D. on Thursday and Friday have not yet been returned.)
Krowinski says that several states and multiple cities — including Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Chicago — have established 35-foot buffer zones around reproductive health clinics, and notes that a federal judge in Massachusetts recently upheld the constitutionality of the Bay State's buffer zone law.
Krowinski says abortion services represent two percent of everything Planned Parenthood of Northern New England (PPNNE) does at its 10 Vermont health centers, and clinics in Maine and New Hampshire.
Mary Hahn Beerworth, executive director of the Vermont Right to Life Committee, says her group demonstrates one Saturday a month outside Planned Parenthood offices in Burlington, Barre and Rutland. Beerworth insists Right to Life protesters don't speak to people going in and out of the building or hand out literature. She says they hold signs, including one that says, "At this clinic, six babies a week are aborted."
Beerworth says it's the demonstrators who get yelled at. "We've had instances where someone had screamed profanity at us from a moving car and one of our folks screamed back," she says. Beerworth views it as "ironic" that Burlington would permit Occupy Vermont protesters to camp overnight in City Hall Park in violation of city ordinance, but that "we might be told we can't do what everyone else does, which is engage in lawful protest."
Another group that regularly pickets Planned Parenthood is the local chapter of 40 Days For Life, which holds 40-day prayer vigils outside PPNNE offices twice yearly. The last one went from February 22 to April 1.
Agnes Clift of South Burlington, the group's organizer, says her members "mostly stand and pray" but admits they sometimes ask someone walking past if she wants to talk. "But we never push ourselves on anybody," Clift says. "We greet them with a smile and wish them the best.
"We actually love these women," Clift adds. "We just want to be there for the ones that need somebody to be there. We don't judge these women. There's so many different reasons why women would have an abortion. We still see it as a tragedy."
Clift acknowledges police were called once because one of her picketers was blocking the sidewalk, but says the matter was resolved without criminal or civil charges. Like Beerworth, Clift says her members have faced harassment from passersby.
Clift blames the situation partly on the new location. Planned Parenthood's old office on Mansfield Avenue had a wider greenbelt, she says, so protesters could stand near the building while still keeping a safe distance from patients and staff. The greenbelt on St. Paul Street is much smaller, she says, forcing picketers and patients into closer proximity.
Neither Beerworth nor Clift sounded all that outraged about the proposed exclusionary zone, and neither planned to attend Monday's city council meeting. Clift said if the ordinance passes, she and her cohorts will simply stand across St. Paul Street with bigger signs.
Photo by Cathy Resmer, shot outside PPNNE's St. Paul Street office on April 25.