Laurie Bertram Roberts is familiar with the scene outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Jackson, Mississippi. She volunteered as one of the abortion clinic’s first patient escorts in 2013, putting herself between anti-choice protesters and the patients she guided into the building.
The protesters were often so close she could feel their breath on her neck, Roberts said. There were, after all, few legal protections keeping those seeking care safe from protesters.
“They want to be intimidating. They want the experience to be scary and shameful,” Roberts told Rewire.News. “What they do influences people’s behavior, and they know that. They want you to be uncomfortable. It’s all about power.”
Now, an anti-choice group is challenging a new Jackson ordinance protecting clinic patients and staff from harassment. The buffer zone ordinance, passed this month by the Jackson City Council, prohibits protesters from gathering within 15 feet of the entrance to any health-care facility, including Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the state’s only abortion clinic. The ordinance bans protesters from coming within eight feet of patients or staff, unless the person they’re approaching consents to receive a pamphlet.
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The Mississippi Justice Institute filed a lawsuit in the Hinds County Circuit Court on behalf of the anti-choice group, Sidewalk Advocates for Life, claiming the ordinance violates the protesters’ rights to free speech.
“Our clients are engaging in quintessential free speech, and they are doing so peacefully and respectfully,” Aaron Rice, director of the Mississippi Justice Institute, said in a statement. “They care deeply for the unborn and feel morally led to offer life-affirming alternatives to people entering an abortion facility. Jackson’s new ordinance is an attempt to silence our clients’ speech, and we are proud to stand with them and defend their rights.”
In the six years since Roberts first volunteered as a patient escort, the anti-choice protesters outside the Jackson clinic have only escalated their tactics, often stepping into the road, blocking traffic, and creating chaos in the business district where the clinic is located. At the urging of the business community, the Jackson City Council passed the buffer zone ordinance in a 3-1 vote. Violations could result in a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail.
“They have gotten away with a lot, and it’s chaotic for patients,” Roberts said. “There is no other medical procedure where people have to go through this. There are other procedures people may object to being done, but you don’t go through this.”
The challenge to Jackson’s buffer zone ordinance comes as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to consider a challenge to a similar ordinance in Chicago that prohibits protesters from coming within a 50-foot radius of a clinic entrance. The Chicago ordinance establishes a “bubble zone” around people entering and leaving a clinic, banning anyone from coming within eight feet without permission.
In 2014, the Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts buffer zone law that banned protesters within 35 feet of an abortion clinic. Anti-choice activists challenging these ordinances say buffer zones infringe upon their free speech rights, but the goal of these laws is to protect patient privacy and safety, said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute.
“This is harassment and intimidation. This isn’t about free speech or having a marketplace of ideas,” Nash told Rewire.News. “Clinic violence is pervasive and ongoing. What we are talking about is protecting those going in and out of abortion clinics. In the last couple decades, patients, staff, and volunteers have been subject to harassment and violence.”
Abortion providers are facing unprecedented levels of violence and threats, according to the National Abortion Federation (NAF), which tracks incidents of disruption and violence against providers. From 2017 to 2018, NAF members reported a 78 percent increase in incidents of trespassing and acts meant to obstruct access to clinics.
The elimination of buffer zones around abortion facilities would not only make the scene around abortion clinics more dangerous; it could also prevent people from accessing abortion.
“Clinic violence furthers stigma,” Nash said. “We’re talking about people trying to do their jobs or access a health-care service. We have been seeing increases in violence, which leads to less understanding and more stigma, and can keep people from accessing services. People are so intimidated by what they see that they can’t even make it to the front door.”
Roberts said the anti-choice protesters in Jackson claim they are counseling patients on alternative choices to abortion. Roberts, who founded the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund in 2013 to provide financial and logistical support to people seeking abortion, said many callers opt to travel to surrounding states for abortion care in order to avoid the protesters.
“No one should be harassed for their personal health-care decisions,” Roberts said. “Abortion is legal and people are conducting their own personal, legal business. Abortion is a human right and abortion is health care. Free speech does not equal harassment.”