News Law and Policy

New Jersey Town Passes Buffer Zone After Protesters Get Aggressive

Emily Crockett

Anti-choice protesters in Englewood, New Jersey, can no longer come within an eight-foot radius of a health-care facility’s entrance, exit, or driveway, after the city council voted unanimously Tuesday to enact a buffer zone to protect patients from harassment.

Anti-choice protesters in Englewood, New Jersey, can no longer come within an eight-foot radius of a health-care facility’s entrance, exit, or driveway, after the city council voted unanimously Tuesday to enact a buffer zone to protect patients from harassment.

Volunteer clinic escorts who have helped shield patients from aggressive protesters outside Metropolitan Medical Associates in Englewood told Rewire that the buffer zone is necessary because protesters have stepped up their tactics in recent months, and that the measure is popular because members of both the city council and the local community have seen first-hand how bad things have gotten.

“Every single Englewood resident that spoke up [at the city council meeting], spoke up in support of the buffer zone. They were disgusted that this was happening. They’ve driven by and were just horrified by what they saw,” said Lauren Rankin, an escort at Metropolitan Medical.

After an article in the Bergen Record drew attention to increasingly “militant” protest activity outside the clinic, several concerned women decided to start a clinic escort program about three months ago. Ashley, an organizer of that program, said she was “blown away” that this kind of protection was needed in a blue state, her home state of New Jersey, just across the George Washington Bridge from where she now lives in New York. “I didn’t even know there was a need for it,” she said. Ashley asked not to give her last name because she, like many clinic escorts, fears harassment if aggressive protesters get a hold of her identifying information.

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Ashley said that city council member Lynne Algrant has been supportive of the clinic escorts from the beginning and was instrumental in getting the buffer zone passed. Just three women volunteered as escorts at first (now there are about a dozen at a time every week), and when they were outside one day, Ashley said Algrant “pulled up in her car and gave us her business card and said, ‘I’m on the city council, if you have any problems please call me.’”

Metropolitan Medical has been a target of anti-choice protesters for decades because it’s a large clinic that has performed later abortions since before Roe v. Wade. The protests were massive and problematic in the 1980s and 1990s, until an injunction sent them across the street. But when the clinic changed hands, that injunction was no longer in effect, and more aggressive tactics from groups like the fundamentalist organization Bread of Life Fellowship started being seen fairly recently.

Rankin has nicknames for certain kinds of protesters she deals with on a weekly basis at Metropolitan Medical. There’s “the runner,” a woman from the anti-choice crisis pregnancy center (CPC) across the street, who incessantly follows patients and escorts for blocks and ignores requests to stop. And then there are “the screamers,” the aggressive protesters from Bread of Life or the radically anti-choice group Abolish Human Abortion, who sometimes come in from out of town. They call themselves “street preachers,” Rankin said, and their “sermons” consist of screaming for three hours about the evils of abortion—but when patients get closer, “then the preaching becomes targeted with verbal abuse at that person,” she said.

Rankin said she has been shoved by an aggressive male protester and has seen the same happen to other escorts. Protesters also try to goad male companions into physical violence so they have an excuse to call the police, she said, and the vitriolic rhetoric often upsets and confuses patients.

She noted that not all of the protesters are problems. A Catholic group that prays across the street has always been peaceful, and while more of the CPC affiliates used to be like “the runner,” they have seemingly scaled back those tactics after realizing that Bread of Life’s extreme actions make them look bad.

On any given Saturday there will be about 20 to 25 protesters total, including peaceful ones, but on one particularly harrowing day there were about 40 to 45, many forming a “gauntlet” for patients to walk through, Rankin said. But she said the worst example of intimidation, even if more understated, might be the guy who always stands in the entrance filming everyone who comes into the clinic. Even an eight-foot buffer zone, which is enough distance to get protesters out of people’s faces, might not stop that man from making patients fear for their privacy.

More than 100 people filled the room for the city council meeting Tuesday, the majority of them supporting the buffer zone. A few anti-choice protesters stood in the back holding signs, and Edward Gilhooly of the Legal Center for Defense of Life in Morristown threatened legal action if the law passed.

After Joseph LoSardo, pastor of the Bread of Life Fellowship, asked why the council wouldn’t wait until June, when the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality a 35-foot buffer zone law in Massachusetts, Rankin recalled Councilmember Michael Cohen saying, “In Englewood, we don’t follow, we lead.”

“I wanted to hug him,” Rankin said, of Cohen. “You forget sometimes what it feels like to win something on this side. To have an elected official say, ‘No, this is wrong, you have a right to an abortion, and we’re willing to put ourselves on the line to protect that constitutional right.”

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.

Commentary Violence

How We Can Disrupt the Pattern of Anti-Abortion Violence

David S. Cohen & Krysten Connon

In the face of yet another clinic attack last month, this one in Colorado Springs, everyone who cares should be asking the same thing: What can we do to stop another act of violence?

Read more of our articles on the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting here.

The Planned Parenthood attack in Colorado Springs last month was not an isolated incident. Rather, it is part of an ongoing story of anti-choice extremists using violence to end lawful abortion. In the face of this pattern, everyone who cares should be asking the same thing: What can we do to stop another attack?

Unfortunately, this question arises again and again, after each tragedy. Since 1993, there have been 11 people murdered by anti-abortion terrorists. In all of these cases, murder was already against the law. Plus, since 1994, the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act has protected against clinic blockades and violence. In other words, even with laws on the books meant to prohibit them, these tragedies still happened.

Existing laws can be improved, of course, but the solution to anti-choice violence must be broader: It lies in destigmatization, depoliticization, and de-escalation.

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Why is abortion, a procedure almost one in three women will have in their lifetime, not talked about more often? Why is it so out of the ordinary that a recent episode of Scandal was celebrated for showing its main character obtaining the procedure? Why are abortion clinics separated from those providing other medical care? The answer to all of these questions has a large part to do with the stigma associated with abortion.

Abortion stigma is one of the main contributing factors to dangerous anti-choice extremism. When abortion is seen as different from other medicine and morally wrong, radicals take that message and translate it into aggression. After all, there’s no targeted and politicized violence in the world of dermatology or heart surgery. That’s because patients and providers of that care are not shamed and alienated like they are when it comes to abortion.

Furthermore, abortion has long been a political football, in part because of the way it has been so highly stigmatized, and that has only increased of late—which, in turn, worsens that stigmatization. Since 2010, there have been a record number of anti-choice laws enacted throughout the country. The passage of these laws has strongly correlated with increased harassment of providers, something that has been found by academic research as well as the recent Feminist Majority Foundation study showing that targeting of providers has increased from 2010 to 2014, the same timeframe in which this record number of new restrictions has been enacted.

The courts can work to further that stigma, such as in the Texas case the Supreme Court is hearing next month. Texas has regulated abortion clinics to almost non-existence, requiring doctors and clinics to jump through hoops that are not medically necessary and that no other similar health-care provider must follow. If the Court upholds these regulations, it will send the message that abortion care is not regular medical care.

But depoliticizing means more than just reducing the ways that abortion is needlessly restricted. It’s also about toning down the violent rhetoric. When providers are regularly called “murderers” or “baby killers,” the environment is not one ripe for reasoned discussion of a divisive issue. Rather, it’s one that primes people to take matters into their own hands.

The Colorado murders are a perfect example of this. Since July, when the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) released its deceptively edited videos, Planned Parenthood has been in the national crosshairs. It has been routinely attacked by the media, Congress, and presidential candidates. Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina in particular has been among the loudest in attacking Planned Parenthood, with her outrageous and discredited claims that the organization is not only “selling baby parts”—claims that originated with the CMP videos—but also keeping fetuses alive to harvest their organs.

It’s no surprise, then, that Robert Lewis Dear Jr. was reportedly talking about “selling baby parts” during his arrest in Colorado Springs. This seems to suggest he was following the lead that was set for him by the extreme politicization of the issue.

And on a local level, policymakers and law enforcement need to work every day to de-escalate the environment around abortion facilities and providers. Abortion clinics are often the scene of aggressive protests. Spend a Saturday morning observing your local clinic: In many places in the country, you will find people shouting, carrying gruesome signs, and following patients.

Some states and municipalities have tried to protect clinic entrances by forbidding the presence of protesters within a certain area around them, but last year the Supreme Court found that a Massachusetts law that created a 35-foot buffer zone around clinics was unconstitutional. However, this doesn’t mean nothing can be done. Smaller zones, like the 15-foot buffer zone in Pittsburgh, have so far been upheld in the face of a constitutional challenge following the Massachusetts case.

Other policies can also help to de-escalate the situation around clinics. Laws that protect against blockades, harassment, stalking, excessive noise, and other behavior that hampers good medical care tend to raise fewer constitutional concerns than buffer zones. For instance, every court that has addressed the constitutionality of FACE has found that it does not violate the First Amendment, and noise ordinances have been upheld around clinics as neutral ways to protect patients. These laws, as well as better policing to enforce them, can help patients and providers enter and exit clinics in a less charged environment. They also, when written clearly, give police clearer guidance on how to handle the conflict with anti-choice protesters, which decreases the likelihood that officers’ individual beliefs about abortion will influence how they respond.

Beyond the clinic environment, providers need to be better protected from the routine targeting they face. Their identities and personal information, including home addresses, can be kept from public discovery through laws like California’s Safe at Home Program, which should be a model for every state in the country; crimes against them can be sentenced more harshly when said crimes are based on their status as abortion providers. Municipalities can also enact residential picketing laws that restrict or outlaw protesting in front of an individual’s house and disturbing the peace and quiet that we all seek from our homes. These reforms won’t prevent all crimes, but they can help create a more normal, less terrorized life for abortion providers.

Despite the court decisions whittling away at Roe v. Wade and increased state regulations, abortion remains a legal right in this country—and patients and providers deserve to access it without fear of violence. But there are still extremists who feel they must take matters into their own hands. Only by destigmatizing abortion, de-escalating the environment around clinics and providers, and depoliticizing the issue as a whole can we make any headway into preventing another radical committing yet another act of terror.