Pittsburgh to abortion clinic protesters: Back off

City Council approves ordinance requiring antiabortion activists to keep their distance from clinics.

Published December 14, 2005 6:33PM (EST)

The Pittsburgh City Council gave final approval yesterday to restrictions on "protests" outside local abortion clinics, the Post-Gazette reports today.

Under the ordinance, protesters -- and I use that word generously -- must stand more than 15 feet away from any healthcare facility. Anywhere within 100 feet of the doors, protesters must stay at least eight feet away from clients, unless the clients give consent. (We'll see how effectively that's determined.) Violators would face up to $300 in fines and up to 30 days in jail.

Were Mayor Tom Murphy to veto the ordinance -- so far he's mum -- the 6-3 vote would likely be sufficient for an override.

This "buffer zone" concept is derived from a Colorado law upheld by the Supreme Court in 2000. Also on our side (though not designating areas where protesters may or may not stand): the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act of 1994. (God, remember when presidents signed bills like that into law?)

While 15 feet still seems awfully close to me, kudos to the Pittsburgh City Council for apparently understanding that what goes on at these "protests" very often crosses the line from "free speech" into intimidation and harassment on a good day, violence -- even murder -- on a bad one. I repeat: Do not mistake this for a First Amendment issue.

First of all, hello, they're not telling protesters to pack up their creepy pamphlets and go home; they're simply telling them to keep their distance. Further, I'm a veteran of large-scale clinic sieges in Boston and Buffalo, N.Y., where I've seen firsthand that the "protesters'" goals were not to "make their voices heard" but to violently shut down a legal facility -- and interfere, in the process, with patients exercising a constitutional right. My husband and I are also members of the Haven Coalition, recently mentioned in Broadsheet, which means that my husband frequently calls me in a rage after dropping our young charge at the clinic -- and escorting her past someone (often a man) pleading with her not to "kill her baby." The strong ones sass back, the frightened ones burst into tears, and yet they do not waver in knowing what's right for them. So thanks, harassing guy, that was useful for everyone.

Antiabortion activists are, appropriately, entitled to all sorts of rights and privileges: legislative lobbying, access to media, big-ass marches. (They are about as oppressed as the "victims" of the "war on Christmas.") So let them hound their legislators, not private citizens. Antiabortion groups in Pittsburgh have pledged to challenge the new ordinance, assuming it's enforced, in court. Good. It'll keep 'em off the street.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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