The Burlington, VT City Council voted Monday night to create 35-foot “No Protest” buffer zones around all reproductive health care centers in the city, including Planned Parenthood. Monday night’s vote was the final step in creating the ordinance, which was temporarily put in place after patients and staff at Planned Parenthood complained about harassment from pro-life protestors.
According to Agnes Clift, secretary for Vermont Right to Life and a 40 Days for Life campaigner, members of the city council stated repeatedly that there have been no acts of violence and that protestors haven’t violated any laws. However, the council decided that the patients are being harassed by proximity, and therefore, the no-protest zones are necessary.
In Article IX Health Center Buffer Zones, the city council says, “The exercise of a person’s right to speak for or against certain medical procedures is a First Amendment activity that must be balanced against another person’s right to obtain medical counseling and treatment in an unobstructed manner. [… and they want] to provide unobstructed access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities.” However, according to Clift, police records show that protestors were peaceful, polite, and not in violation of any laws or ordinances, and she says the group never blocks women from entering the clinic. In fact, she explained, only two of the calls to police from the clinic were related to protestors at all.
Clift says that her group has obtained legal counsel and will challenge the new ordinance. She has been running successful 40 Days for Life campaigns over the last few years, starting at Planned Parenthood’s former location on Mansfield Ave., and following the clinic to their new location on St. Paul Street. After the spring campaign ended, the group felt they wanted to continue their presence at Planned Parenthood and chose to meet there on Wednesday, the main day for abortions at the clinic.
“Planned Parenthood’s web site says they are closed except for deliveries on Wednesdays,” she explained. “But about 10-20 girls and women go there each Wednesday for abortions. They [Planned Parenthood] discourage walk-ins and other appointments on that day.”
The group, mostly made up of women, including some who have had abortions, say they simply smile and say hello to the women who enter the clinic. They usually pray the rosary and have recently begun handing out brochures that show the gestation and development of the unborn child as well as the side effects of abortion and resources for the mother. And they have had an effect.
“At our first 40 days for Life,” says Clift, “a car pulled in and a young couple rolled down the window and said, ‘Please keep us in your prayers, we’ve decided to keep our baby’. And a few months ago, a couple went into Planned Parenthood, then came out and told us that they had changed their mind. And another time we had a couple drive in, go in and come back out. They looked upset so we talked to them as they were leaving. He was looking at the school playground and he said that they had gone to Planned Parenthood to get an ultrasound to see the development of the baby, but the clinic refused. We told them that Care Net offers free ultrasounds and sent them there.”
Despite the ordinance, Clift says the group will continue having a presence at Planned Parenthood. She defends the group of protestors, saying:
It isn’t really a protest. We don’t harass people. We are usually on the other side of the street, except on Wednesdays. We smile, say hi. We aren’t trying to be judgmental. We just want women to consider alternatives. Our hearts are in this. We feel we need to continue to do it. It’s not a hopeless situation, but it will be much more difficult to say hi and the distance may be too far to get our message across. Still, we hope we can make a difference in someone’s life.