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December 23, 2011

Last week, I sat in the audience at the Suffolk County Legislature’s Public Safety Committee meeting, listening to more than 15 anti-choice protesters proclaim their right to free speech.  They peppered their pro-free-speech statements, of course, with lots of statements that are more like yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.  I don’t want to rehash all their craziness, let’s just say I don’t take kindly to hearing Planned Parenthood compared to “killing fields.” 

What brought out their craziness, this time around, was a clinic access bill.  The bill, sponsored by pro-choice champion Legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher, would create a 35-foot buffer zone around the premises of reproductive health care facilities in Suffolk County, NY within which no protests could take place.  The idea, of course, is to minimize – as best we can – the harassment and intimidation that our patients feel when they see protesters outside of the office where they see their nurse or doctor.  We know that women who come in for abortion care feel unsafe when they pass protesters outside their doctor’s office.  The bill was modeled on the Massachusetts law, which has been upheld as a reasonable time, place, and manner regulation of speech.

The bill was ultimately tabled, as was a similar bill in Westchester last week which Trista, Lisa, and other pro-choicers came out to support.  But the true craziness – and prime example of harassment and intimidation – happened after the vote that tabled the bill in Suffolk.

After the vote, I started to gather my belongings to leave, as did the antis.  Lisa, who was with me, stopped me.  She and I watched the antis walk out.  We both saw one man turn to stare at us, and then sit back down.  He was one of the many people who had spoken against the bill.  We stayed in our seats.  After a few minutes he walked out, only to come over to the side of the lobby closer to us and stare at us through a window in the door into the legislative auditorium.  He and the rest of the antis were waiting for us in the lobby.  The committee meeting continued, on unrelated issues; at its conclusion, instead of leaving, we approached the legislative staff and requested to be escorted to my car.  They graciously agreed and even took us out a back exit normally reserved for legislators.  To them, I say thank you for keeping me and Lisa safe.

The meeting had gone on for some time, and we were hungry.  It wasn’t until after I had driven to Panera, ordered and paid for my lunch, and heard the cashier say “Have a nice day,” that I felt like normalcy had returned.

I know that the protesters have been known to take pictures of people and cars on their way into our center.  I am certain that they look up license plate numbers to learn more about our patients and staff, the better to harass people.  I have coworkers whose home phones have been filled with hateful and threatening messages by so-called “pro-life” people. 

But in five years of working at Planned Parenthood, I have never felt so afraid as I did that afternoon. 

Stigma, harassment, and fear are complicated issues, especially when it comes to abortion.  The Abortioneers have had a couple of great  posts up this week on just these issues.  And there are other blogs devoted to the experiences of clinic escorts.  This post is just one story about what happens when we threaten the antis’ right to stand outside a healthcare facility spewing hate and fear.  It’s not enough to stop us – we’re still here and you can bet that we will continue to pursue clinic access bills, so we can make life a little easier for the women we serve.

By the way, you can say thank you to Suffolk Legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher for being a woman of principle here, or call her office at (631) 854-1650.  You can also call Legislator Duwayne Gregory to thank him for making strongly supportive, pro-choice statements during the discussion before the vote (not to mention voting AGAINST tabling the bill!) at (631) 854-1111.  (No need to be a constituent – spread the love.)

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