New protections for abortion seekers proposed, but may face rival efforts

After a years-long saga of trying to regulate the loudest and rudest protesters outside clinics that offer abortions, a new law may finally protect patients and employees of Planned Parenthood in San Francisco from harassment. Sup. David Campos introduced a resolution yesterday [Tues/23] that would refine his previous legislation creating a buffer zone outside reproductive healthcare centers, the latest in legal maneuverings to protect free speech while sparing medical care-seekers from harm.

Although San Francisco houses only one of Planned Parenthood’s 22 health centers in Northern California, the opposition to its Valencia Street location stands out. “In San Francisco, there are particularly harassing protesters, a small but vocal group,” Adrienne Bousian, the vice president of public affairs of Planned Parenthood Northern California, told us. “They film women and men walking down the street, shout insults, and follow women. They try to block access with their arms and get in front of the door.”

It’s the same old song, as pro-life protesters tout the sins of abortion to anyone who will listen. Sometimes, the people they harass are customers seeking STD checks or other health care. Sometimes the people they harass are simply neighbors. Large photographs of fetuses and bloody remains greet passers-by. When former Guardian staff writer Caitlin Donohue visited last year, she cataloged clinic-protester Erika Hathaway’s gem arguments.

“Don’t kill your baby! If it could talk it would say ‘Mommy, don’t judge me,'” she shouted. Hathaway is one of the protester mainstays. Another favored tactic of Hathaway’s: playing Christmas music on full blast, to remind those inside the Planned Parenthood that “Christ was a baby once.”

As Bousian told us, sometimes women facing the life-changing choice of abortion have to face down the “gauntlet” of these protesters, and their frightening photos. One can only imagine how scarring that could be, while already facing a decision that could color the rest of one’s life.

abortion protesters

Outside the Planned Parenthood, last year. GUARDIAN PHOTO BY CAITLIN DONOHUE.

Campos’ “buffer zone” resolution last year was intended to end “the gauntlet” of harassment, establishing a 25-foot space in front of reproductive healthcare clinics protesters were barred from crossing. But after the US Supreme Court knocked down a similar buffer zone law in Massachusetts, the city got skittish over enforcing the law, and the protesters came back in earnest.

Now, it’s time for another crack at removing the emboldened protesters. The new resolution calls for a 25-foot zone around a reproductive health care facility that protesters cannot follow or harass people within, a tweak that may make all the difference. It will also bar anyone from impeding entry into a reproductive health care facility, and bar use of amplified sound or shouting within 50 feet (with reasonable exceptions, like car horns).

Perhaps this new resolution was what tipped Planned Parenthood into endorsing Campos’ candidacy for the 17th California Assembly District. Notably, it wasn’t the nonprofit itself that endorsed him, but rather their political arm, the Planned Parenthood Northern California Action Fund. Bousian, putting on her political hat, said the action fund felt Campos distinguished himself in defending women’s rights, including with this resolution.

“We want California to lead the way as a state expanding access,” she said. “That’s our goal.”

Still, an open question lingers: What will become of Mayor Ed Lee and Sup. Malia Cohen’s planned resolution to protect healthcare providers from harassment? Normally, a resolution like this would be a slam-dunk at the Board of Supervisors. But Lee and Cohen’s resolution mirrors Campos’, and was announced earlier this month. Some political insiders indicated to us that the mayor may be open to merging his efforts with Campos, but Campos’ office said it received no word from the mayor yet. And with Cohen’s District 10 supervisorial race and Campos’ Assembly race giving both cause to want to take ownership on this issue, there’s a chance for political strife and gamesmanship along the way.

Hopefully, political squabbles and posturing won’t postpone needed efforts to protect women and other healthcare seekers.

“San Francisco should be leading the way,” Bousian told us.

Yes, it should.