Anti-abortion activists outside Planned Parenthood’s Valencia Street clinic vowed to fight on Thursday despite initial approval this week by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors of an expanded 25-foot buffer zone around reproductive healthcare facilities in an effort to protect patients from intimidation and harassment.
Pending final approval, the expanded buffer zone would replace the current 8-foot “bubble zone” shielding clinic clients from shouts and graphic posters. The San Francisco ordinance would make it a finable offense to protest within 25 feet of clinic entrances, exits and driveways. Violators could face up to three months in jail or a $1,000 fine. Currently, protesters who violate the 8-foot bubble zone receive only a citation.
While demonstrators yesterday blasted the measure as a violation of their right to free speech, reproductive rights advocates praised its enhanced protection for women. City Hall officials said lawmakers from other states are studying the city’s enlarged buffer zone.
District 9 Supervisor David Campos sponsored the legislation, which was unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors. The ordinance was developed in response to issues of harassment by anti-abortion activists in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic on Valencia Street, though it will apply to all reproductive health care clinics in the city.
“San Francisco has been a leader for protecting individual rights,” Campos said at the board meeting. “We have had a situation where a number of individuals have crossed the line of not just expressing their views, but actually harassing and intimidating women who are expressing their rights.”
Campos stressed the need for a buffer zone law that would also keep intact the First Amendment rights of anti-abortion activists.
“[It] strikes the right balance between protecting the right of individuals to engage in free speech … but also protecting the right of women in these stand-alone clinics to access health care.”
The Valencia Street Planned Parenthood is a frequent target for protesters, who often shout at patients and staff, hand out pamphlets on alternatives to abortion and display grisly signs picturing dead fetuses.
A year in the making, the ordinance expands the current San Francisco law, passed in 1993, which established an 8-foot bubble zone around individuals within 100 feet of a health care facility. The ordinance would also expand on the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which makes it an offense to use physical force or intimidation in order to prevent a person from entering a reproductive health care facility.
Reproductive health and pro-choice advocates say that Planned Parenthood is often one of the few options low-income women have for reproductive health care, contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections. Planned Parenthood representatives claim that one in five women visit one of the group’s 750 affiliated clinics in the United States within their lifetime.
“This is an amazing day for San Francisco,” said Adrienne Verrilli, director of communications for the Valencia Street Planned Parenthood. “Protesters still have room to express their First Amendment rights while giving the space for patients and staff to access the clinic.”
Verrilli and Campos legislative aide Stephany Ashley said that other clinics around the country are looking at San Francisco’s legislation as a way to combat harassment and intimidation.
“People seem to be interested in our success,” said Verrilli.
Officials in Austin, Texas, are considering an ordinance for a buffer zone, Verrilli said. Ashley said that after a hearing about the ordinance held by the Neighborhood Services and Safety Committee in April, she spoke with other health agencies in the Midwest that want to implement a 25-foot zone based on San Francisco’s process.
Although many health care advocates view the board’s approval of the iniative as a success, David Trujillo, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood in several Bay Area cities, said that measures adopted elsewhere may vary.
“I think it’s really going to depend,” he said. “It’s going to be [on] a case by case basis and it’s not going to be the answer at every health center. It’s going to be taken up at the local level.”
On Thursday, May 9, a few protesters were out in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic on Valencia Street. They said they were not deterred by the board’s vote.
“It’s a slow eroding of our First Amendment rights,” said Erika Hathaway, a frequent protester at the clinic.
Hathaway, who sits in a wheelchair while handing out pamphlets, is able to place herself in front of the clinic’s entrance because of a white zone exemption for people with disabilities.
Planned Parenthood gained approval from the city for a white zone space in front of the clinic last year to aid their efforts in moving protesters away from the entrances.
“They make it worse and worse,” Hathaway said of lawmakers and Planned Parenthood. “It will be 35 feet, and then across the street, and then in another state.”
The buffer zone approval comes less than a week after the South San Francisco Planning Commission voted to allow a new Planned Parenthood clinic in that city’s downtown area. The new facility will not offer abortion procedures.
Ross Foti, an outspoken anti-abortion activist, was ejected from Tuesday’s board meeting after being told repeatedly to stop addressing Campos directly as he spoke during the comment period.
Foti, who wore a shirt to the meeting that read “Abortion is Murder,” was also protesting near the clinic on Thursday.
“I’m very upset,” he said of the approval. “It’s unconstitutional and we are going to fight it.”
Both Hathaway and Foti claim they have been issued several citations that have all been dismissed in court.
Recently, members of the religious anti-abortion organization “40 Days for Life” have also protested outside the clinic.
“It’s a remedy,” Verrilli said of the potential for jail time and fines for those who violate the ordinance. “People can make citizens’ arrests.”
Despite the increased risk, Foti said he will continue to protest.
“They could throw me in jail for life,” he said.
The ordinance is slated to come before the Board of Supervisors for final approval at the next scheduled meeting.