Commentary Abortion

This Is Why St. Louis Clinics Deserve a Buffer Zone (Updated)

Allison Klinghammer

Harassment at clinics from “sidewalk counselors” is just one more hurdle to accessing abortion care for those in St. Louis, Missouri.

UPDATE, March 7, 1:00 p.m.: The final vote on the St. Louis buffer zone bill is now expected to take place on March 9, according to a report from the Clayton Times.

I wake up early and drive across St. Louis, Missouri, to the Planned Parenthood clinic in the Central West End one Saturday each month, rain or shine. I sign in, wave hello to the clinic staff, and slide on a neon-colored vest emblazoned with the words “Pro-Choice Volunteer” on the front. My only job that day is to walk with patients from their cars, into the clinic and back, to ensure their emotional and physical safety.

It’s because of this work that I fully support buffer zones, like the one up for a vote in St. Louis on Friday, March 2. Buffer zones provide a safe space for patients and staff to enter and exit clinics: an area where they can be free of harassment from people who have shown up to yell at them, demean them, and shove their anti-choice beliefs on them. And I’ve seen firsthand how big of an effect buffer zones would make on St. Louis clinics.

When I started volunteering for NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri’s clinic escort program (I now work at the organization as its communications and digital strategy manager), the Planned Parenthood at which I volunteered was the only clinic offering abortion services in the entire state, meaning patients were driving from all over Missouri—sometimes upwards of four or five hours—to access the constitutionally protected health care they needed, wanted, and deserved. Since then, two more clinics have opened, but additional barriers to access haven’t made obtaining an abortion any easier.

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In addition to state-mandated restrictions on abortion such as medically inaccurate counseling and an unnecessary 72-hour waiting period, women face another intimidating barrier before they even walk into the clinic: protesters—the so-called prayer warriors and “sidewalk counselors,” all there in hopes of stopping patients from receiving the care they seek.

These anti-choice protesters show up every day of the week, but, on Saturdays in particular, they gather around the driveway and swarm the clinic. Since they’re not allowed inside the gated lot, this is the best they can do to get close to the patients.

Some protesters hold signs. Some stare at you, holding a rosary and whispering prayers to themselves. Some stand on stepstools so they can yell at patients and staff over the fence.

I’ve seen men yell at women and throw baby clothes at them. “You’ll always be a killer,” they shouted.

While the harassment at large is terrible, among the worst of it may be the “sidewalk counselors,” who wear vests that look like our clinic vests and hold up signs saying “Check-In Here.” In all of our Midwestern politeness, most cars stop in the driveway to check in, though of course all they will receive are pamphlets filled with anti-choice propaganda shoved through the window and an invitation to receive a free pregnancy test in a “crisis pregnancy center” RV parked across the street.

These fake clinics frequently pose as actual medical centers, even though they usually are not staffed by medical personnel; the anti-choice centers are simply fronts meant to provide a space to lie to women and convince them to carry a pregnancy to term. We don’t need people trying to deceive women at such a personal and vulnerable time in their lives.

Buffer zones have been shown to work in cities and states that have already enacted them. A 2013 survey from the National Abortion Federation of clinics found that 75 percent of clinics with a buffer zone reported that it improved ease of patient and staff access to the clinic.

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court protected a woman’s right to choose in its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling. We have a right to access abortion care, yet “sidewalk counselors” who believe they know our situations better than we do are allowed to deceive those seeking access to reproductive health care. It’s time we take action to protect women as they make a deeply personal decision, so they can take advantage of their constitutionally protected care free of harassment.

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