Law meant to protect clinicbothers abortion opponents

Anti-abortion activists in West Palm Beach are unhappy about a law that keeps them 20 feet away from an abortion clinic.

Associated Press
Published October 24, 2005

WEST PALM BEACH - Susan Pine normally greets patients at an abortion clinic here with a bullhorn, yelling that they should not kill their babies and handing out pamphlets with graphic photos of aborted fetuses, each with 10 fingers and 10 toes.

Employees at the Presidential Women's Center say the yelling can be heard inside the clinic, angering many patients and increasing their pulse rates and blood pressure. Sensitivity to the ongoing protests reached a new level in July when arson caused fire, smoke and water damage at the facility.

The deteriorating situation prompted city leaders to pass a law that keeps protesters at least 20 feet away from the facility and prohibits excessive noise, including Pine's bullhorn.

Protesters are challenging the ordinances in federal court. Their efforts show how the bitter abortion debate reaches every level of American politics, from the debate over nominees in the U.S. Supreme Court to a city ordinance that affects a single clinic.

"We're just trying to make a safe situation for women out of what was a nightmare before," said Mona Reis, the clinic's president and founder.

The abortion debate already is playing a role in the 2006 governor's race. Tom Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer, who is running for the GOP nomination, recently proposed a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking an abortion.

Gallagher's primary opponent, Attorney General Charlie Crist, opposes abortion, although he voted against a 24-hour waiting period for all women in 1995 when he served in the state Senate.

Often, the debates at the local level become the most dangerous. Clinics have been trouble spots, including the shooting deaths of an abortion doctor and his escort outside a Pensacola clinic in 1994. Paul Hill was executed for the murders in September 2003.

But in West Palm Beach, Pine and other protesters say their demonstrations are peaceful and that they have a First Amendment right to share information with women going to the clinic.

"We're simply trying to give women information so they can make an informed decision," Pine said.

Pine, who's with the antiabortion group Face Life, left her bullhorn on a recent Saturday and joined the quiet protest held by about 20 others. They usually arrive in a caravan of noticeable cars, each covered in several signs. Most show pictures of developed fetuses with messages such as "Save the Babies" and "God Isn't OK with Abortion. Thou Shalt Not Kill."

A few protesters hold video cameras - a silent threat that patients' license plates will be recorded and publicly posted. On Oct. 8, the first day the ordinances went into effect, several protesters pushed the limits of the new law, forcing police officers to usher them out of the new 20-foot buffer zone surrounding the clinic.

"We've been here peacefully for the past 15 years with no incidents and now this," Pine said. "We all have to be afraid now of getting arrested."

But city officials said the protests can create tension and traffic problems around the clinic, especially when protesters approach moving cars to try to get antiabortion pamphlets to women.

The law's opponents worry that it is too broad. Michael DePrimo, an attorney with the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy who filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Miami, said the buffer zone applies "to both willing and unwilling listeners." The case is pending before U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks.

"This is a blanket prohibition, which is unlike the buffer zones held up in three cases by the federal court," DePrimo said.

But proponents say women going to the clinic deserve to have their privacy protected and should not be hassled by protesters.

"I think what it does is it creates a balance," Reis said. "It certainly does not in any way, shape or form limit those that want to voice any opinion."