The Burlington City Council overwhelmingly approved an ordinance Monday night that establishes a 35-foot "buffer zone" around health centers. The vote was 13 to 1 in support, with Councilor Paul Decelles (R–Ward 7) casting the lone dissenting vote.
Councilors said the ordinance seeks to balance the First Amendment right of protesters to speak out against abortion with the public safety concerns of patients to access medical care without being subjected to threats, fear or intimidation,
Although the new ordinance applies to all healthcare facilities in Burlington, its primary aim was the Planned Parenthood clinic on St. Paul Street. Since moving to its downtown location last fall, Planned Parenthood has reported an uptick in anti-abortion activists approaching its patients on the sidewalk, asking why they're visiting the clinic and, in some cases, trying to dissuade them from getting an abortion.
Jill Krowinski, Vermont public affairs director for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, told the council that in the past month alone, 30 patients have reported being "approached, intimidated or harassed" by anti-abortion protesters as they attempted to enter the clinic, creating "a serious public safety issue."
In the past, some councilors, including Decelles, have challenged Planned Parenthood's claims about the number of incidents that have occurred outside the clinic, noting that the Burlington Police Department has logged only a small number of formal complaints. In response, Krowinski explained that Planned Parenthood employees are now documenting all such instances of harassment and intimidation reported by patients, regardless of whether they are subsequently reported to police.
But anti-abortion protester Amy Cochran of Enosburg Falls challenged the claim that it's the protesters who are guilty of harassment and intimidation. Cochran, who has often demonstrated outside the Burlington clinic, says she and her cohorts have "always been respectful" to patients and claims that she's the one who's been spit upon and had a cigarette thrown in her face. "The 35-foot buffer zone does not allow me to offer someone going in for an abortion a way out," she said.
Although few of the people who testified Monday night shared Cochran's views on abortion, several focused on the constitutionality of keeping protesters at bay with a buffer-zone ordinance. Cochran's friend, Barry Kade, a Montgomery attorney, told the council that while he disagrees "100 percent" with Cochran and other anti-choice activists, "I will fight to the death for my right to hear them say it."
But Burlington attorney and longtime civil rights activist Sandy Baird described the buffer zone as "an adequate compromise" that both protects the free speech rights of protesters as well as the rights of women to "safe, protected and unharassed access to their own health care and privacy."
For the most part, the council's discussion was respectful and less a debate over the merits of the proposed ordinance than a councilor-by-councilor explanation for why they were voting the way they would. Councilor Sharon Bushor (I–Ward 1) said she "did struggle a lot with this [ordinance] to try to get it right" and acknowledged the council's inability to substantiate specific instances of confrontations between protesters and Planned Parenthood patients.
Nevertheless, Bushor said,"What we did have was the potential for that to occur and what we did have was people saying 'I'm intimidated and I may not get the health care that I really need to have access to.'"
About the only contentious exchange occurred when Councilor Decelles acknowledged a reference to buffer zones around polling places to protect voters from "running the gauntlet" of politicians engaged in 11th-hour electioneering.
Decelles, who characterized the ordinance as an infringement on free speech, suggested that if the council were willing to set up a buffer zone around Planned Parenthood, "perhaps there should also be a 35-foot buffer zone for folks who are panhandling in front of businesses [and] there should be a 35-foot buffer zone for protesters in front of banks."
"If it's good for one instance," Decelles added, "it should be good for all."
But Councilor Norm Blais (D–Ward 6) called Decelles' analogy "unfortunate." Noting that "no constitutional right is absolute," he suggested that there's a "fundamental difference" between a woman walking into a clinic for a cancer screening or HIV test and one "walking into a bank to cash a check."
Planned Parenthood's Krowinski was more blunt about Decelles' comparison, calling it "an insult."
The buffer zoning ordinance takes effect immediately. Violators are subject to fines ranging from $50 to $500.