News Law and Policy

Federal Court Refuses to Block Buffer Zone Ordinance in Madison, Wisconsin

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Friday's ruling leaves in place a new ordinance that creates buffer zones at entrances to health-care facilities in the city while a legal challenge to its constitutionality moves forward.

On Friday, a federal judge rejected a request by anti-choice groups to temporarily block a new ordinance creating buffer zones at the entrances of health-care facilities in Madison, Wisconsin, leaving the ordinance in place while a legal challenge to its constitutionality moves forward.

The buffer zone ordinance, passed last week, was prompted in part by repeated protests at a Planned Parenthood health-care center in Madison. That facility is the only abortion provider in the city and one of only four in the state. The ordinance is similar to others passed recently in places like Portland, Maine, in response to targeted clinic protests. It creates a protective zone within 160 feet of any heath-care facility to allow patients and staff to enter and exit without being obstructed. In addition, under the ordinance, people on public sidewalks cannot approach another person within eight feet without their consent for the purpose of oral protest, education, “counseling,” displaying signs, or passing leaflets—even outside the 160-foot buffer zone. Violations of the ordinances are punishable by fines ranging from $300 to $750.

Jenni Dye, executive director for NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, explained the purpose of the ordinance to Rewire; it was one of several policy proposals to come out of an investigation of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) the NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin Foundation completed last year. According to Dye, the investigation found that CPCs were increasingly located adjacent to abortion providers, and their presence, along with so-called sidewalk counselors who target patients for harassment outside clinics, demonstrated a need to proactively protect access to reproductive health care.

“No one attempting to access any type of health care should be greeted with physical confrontation, protesters in their face, or forcing leaflets into their hands,” said Dye. “Madison’s newly passed buffer zone will protect patient privacy and dignity while accessing health care.”

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Madison Vigil for Life and several other anti-choice activists and organizations filed the lawsuit challenging the buffer zone less than a day after the Madison City Council passed the ordinance. According to the complaint, the city council had no justification in passing the ordinance, which the plaintiffs allege unconstitutionally violates their First Amendment free speech rights.

In denying the request for a temporary restraining order, U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled the plaintiffs had not yet shown they could succeed on the merits of their claims that the ordinance unconstitutionally restricted their speech rights.

Wisconsin Vigil for Life and the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are also asking the court for a preliminary injunction against the ordinance, which, if successful, would set the stage for blocking the ordinance permanently. Judge Conley gave attorneys for the City of Madison 30 days to respond to that request, which means the buffer zone will stay in place for now, with the court hearing additional arguments challenging the ordinance later this spring.

Culture & Conversation Abortion

With Buffer Zones and Decline of ‘Rescues’ Came Anti-Choice Legal Boom, Book Argues

Eleanor J. Bader

University of Denver's Joshua Wilson argues that prosecutions of abortion-clinic protesters and the decline of "rescue" groups in the 1980s and 1990s boosted conservative anti-abortion legal activism nationwide.

There is nothing startling or even new in University of Denver Professor Joshua C. Wilson’s The New States of Abortion Politics (Stanford University Press). But the concise volume—just 99 pages of text—pulls together several recent trends among abortion opponents and offers a clear assessment of where that movement is going.

As Wilson sees it, anti-choice activists have moved from the streets, sidewalks, and driveways surrounding clinics to the courts. This, he argues, represents not only a change of agitational location but also a strategic shift. Like many other scholars and advocates, Wilson interprets this as a move away from pushing for the complete reversal of Roe v. Wade and toward a more incremental, state-by-state winnowing of access to reproductive health care. Furthermore, he points out that it is no coincidence that this maneuver took root in the country’s most socially conservative regions—the South and Midwest—before expanding outward.

Wilson credits two factors with provoking this metamorphosis. The first was congressional passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in 1994, legislation that imposed penalties on protesters who blocked patients and staff from entering or leaving reproductive health facilities. FACE led to the establishment of protest-free buffer zones at freestanding clinics, something anti-choicers saw as an infringement on their right to speak freely.

Not surprisingly, reproductive rights activists—especially those who became active in the 1980s and early 1990s as a response to blockades, butyric acid attacks, and various forms of property damage at abortion clinics—saw the zones as imperative. In their experiences, buffer zones were the only way to ensure that patients and staff could enter or leave a facility without being harassed or menaced.

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The second factor, Wilson writes, involved the reduced ranks of the so-called “rescue” movement, a fundamentalist effort led by the Lambs of Christ, Operation Rescue, Operation Save America, and Priests for Life. While these groups are former shadows of themselves, the end of the rescue era did not end anti-choice activism. Clinics continue to be picketed, and clinicians are still menaced. In fact, local protesters and groups such as 40 Days for Life and the Center for Medical Progress (which has exclusively targeted Planned Parenthood) negatively affect access to care. Unfortunately, Wilson does not tackle these updated forms of harassment and intimidation—or mention that some of the same players are involved, albeit in different roles.

Instead, he argues the two threads—FACE and the demise of most large-scale clinic protests—are thoroughly intertwined. Wilson accurately reports that the rescue movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s resulted in hundreds of arrests as well as fines and jail sentences for clinic blockaders. This, he writes, opened the door to right-wing Christian attorneys eager to make a name for themselves by representing arrested and incarcerated activists.

But the lawyers’ efforts did not stop there. Instead, they set their sights on FACE and challenged the statute on First Amendment grounds. As Wilson reports, for almost two decades, a loosely connected group of litigators and activists worked diligently to challenge the buffer zones’ legitimacy. Their efforts finally paid off in 2014, when the U.S. Supreme Court found that “protection against unwelcome speech cannot justify restrictions on the use of public streets and sidewalks.” In short, the decision in McCullen v. Coakley found that clinics could no longer ask the courts for blanket prohibitions on picketing outside their doors—even when they anticipated prayer vigils, demonstrations, or other disruptions. They had to wait until something happened.

This, of course, was bad news for people in need of abortions and other reproductive health services, and good news for the anti-choice activists and the lawyers who represented them. Indeed, the McCullen case was an enormous win for the conservative Christian legal community, which by the early 2000s had developed into a network united by opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights.

The New States of Abortion Politics zeroes in on one of these legal groups: the well-heeled and virulently anti-choice Alliance Defending Freedom, previously known as the Alliance Defense Fund. It’s a chilling portrait.

According to Wilson, ADF’s budget was $40 million in 2012, a quarter of which came from the National Christian Foundation, an Alpharetta, Georgia, entity that claims to have distributed $6 billion in grants to right-wing Christian organizing efforts since 1982.

By any measure, ADF has been effective in promoting its multipronged agenda: “religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and the family.” In practical terms, this means opposing LGBTQ inclusion, abortion, marriage equality, and the right to determine one’s gender identity for oneself.

The group’s tentacles run deep. In addition to a staff of 51 full-time lawyers and hundreds of volunteers, a network of approximately 3,000 “allied attorneys” work in all 50 states to boost ADF’s agenda. Allies are required to sign a statement affirming their commitment to the Trinitarian Statement of Faith, a hallmark of fundamentalist Christianity that rests on a literal interpretation of biblical scripture. They also have to commit to providing 450 hours of pro bono legal work over three years to promote ADF’s interests—no matter their day job or other obligations. Unlike the American Bar Association, which encourages lawyers to provide free legal representation to poor clients, ADF’s allied attorneys steer clear of the indigent and instead focus exclusively on sexuality, reproduction, and social conservatism.

What’s more, by collaborating with other like-minded outfits—among them, Liberty Counsel and the American Center for Law and Justice—ADF provides conservative Christian lawyers with an opportunity to team up on both local and national cases. Periodic trainings—online as well as in-person ones—offer additional chances for skill development and schmoozing. Lastly, thanks to Americans United for Life, model legislation and sample legal briefs give ADF’s other allies an easy way to plug in and introduce ready-made bills to slowly but surely chip away at abortion, contraceptive access, and LGBTQ equality.

The upshot has been dramatic. Despite the recent Supreme Court win in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the number of anti-choice measures passed by statehouses across the country has ramped up since 2011. Restrictions—ranging from parental consent provisions to mandatory ultrasound bills and expanded waiting periods for people seeking abortions—have been imposed. Needless to say, the situation is unlikely to improve appreciably for the foreseeable future. What’s more, the same people who oppose abortion have unleashed a backlash to marriage equality as well as anti-discrimination protections for the trans community, and their howls of disapproval have hit a fever pitch.

The end result, Wilson notes, is that the United States now has “an inconstant localized patchwork of rules” governing abortion; some counties persist in denying marriage licenses to LGBTQ couples, making homophobic public servants martyrs in some quarters. As for reproductive health care, it all depends on where one lives: By virtue of location, some people have relatively easy access to medical providers while others have to travel hundreds of miles and take multiple days off from work to end an unwanted pregnancy. Needless to say, this is highly pleasing to ADF’s attorneys and has served to bolster their fundraising efforts. After all, nothing brings in money faster than demonstrable success.

The New States of Abortion Politics is a sobering reminder of the gains won by the anti-choice movement. And while Wilson does not tip his hand to indicate his reaction to this or other conservative victories—he is merely the reporter—it is hard to read the volume as anything short of a call for renewed activism in support of reproductive rights, both in the courts and in the streets.

News Law and Policy

Court Blocks Two Extreme Alabama Anti-Abortion Provisions

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The temporary order prevents officials in Alabama from enforcing a ban on later abortions and implementing a law that would regulate abortion clinics in a similar fashion as sex offenders.

A federal judge on Wednesday temporarily blocked two Alabama abortion restrictions set to take effect August 1 that would ban abortion clinics near schools and criminalize the most commonly used later abortion procedure.

In May, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) signed into law a ban on abortion clinics within 2,000 feet of public K-8 schools. He also approved a separate measure banning the most common method of performing a later abortion, known as dilation and evacuation, or D&E, abortions.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged both provisions on behalf of providers in the state, arguing they were unconstitutional. According to attorneys for the ACLU, the location restriction would close the state’s two busiest abortion clinics, while the method ban would hamper access to later abortions.

The first blocked measure would prohibit the Alabama Department of Public Health from issuing or renewing a health center license to an abortion clinic or reproductive health center close to some public schools. As reported by Rewire, this would effectively regulate abortion clinics in the same manner as registered sex offenders. In Alabama, sex offenders cannot reside within 2,000 feet of a school or child-care facility.

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The second blocked measure would outlaw most surgical abortions. Dilation and evacuation, the most common form of surgical abortion, is used in the majority of abortions after 13 weeks of pregnancy, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. It is extremely safe, with less than one in 1,000 patients experiencing complications.

Dr. Willie Parker, a physician who provides later abortions in Alabama, wrote in a statement to the court that, if allowed to take effect, the law would prevent him from performing abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

According to Dr. Parker’s submission to the court, the only alternative to D&E is to induce labor in a hospital, a much riskier and expensive alternative for the patient.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson Wednesday issued a temporary restraining order to block the state from enforcing the provisions until after an October 4 hearing. In the meantime, both sides were ordered to submit written arguments to the court in advance of that October hearing.

Alabama is not the only state to attack later abortion access. Kansas and Oklahoma both passed similar bans, but those laws remain blocked by court order.