A police cruiser sat in the center divider on Valencia Street Thursday morning, observing but not interfering with protesters displaying images of fetuses and calling out to clients at a Planned Parenthood center—despite the fact that they were standing inside a yellow circle painted on the ground that, until recently, kept them at a distance.
Since the Supreme Court’s McCullen decision, which struck down Massachusetts’ 35-foot buffer zone around abortion providers, the Valencia clinic’s yellow border line is no longer keeping protesters from inching closer to the door. But there is no clear verdict yet on whether San Francisco’s clinics will lose their spatial safeguard.
The Planned Parenthood center has now played unwilling host not only to anti-abortion protestors, but to counter-protesters as well. A group of fewer than 10 who came to show their support for Planned Parenthood and the buffer zone on Thursday wanted to symbolically oppose the message of anti-abortion demonstrators. The vocal exchanges between the two camps attracted a police presence on Thursday, but witnesses said no arrests were made.
Dema Grim, who owns the clothing store Dema on Valencia, organized the counter-protest. She said the idea was to use bizarre and abstract messages (“Pro-Dog” and “Yay Unicorns”) to call attention to the absurdity of the anti-abortion action. Grim said Planned Parenthood generally disapproves of any street activism outside its doors, so she will not be organizing another one, but added that she is showing her support by signing the organization’s online petition.
“This is evolving, and we’re trying to figure out how it is we’re going to protect staff and clients moving forward,” said Adrienne Bousian, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood’s regional branch.
Planned Parenthood representatives have urged all its supporters to put pressure on officials to enforce the city’s fairly new buffer zone ordinances. San Francisco has mandated an eight-foot no-protest bubble around clinics since 1993, but the Board of Supervisors increased that distance to 25 feet last year.
According to Jason McDaniel, assistant professor of law at San Francisco State University, last year’s shift in the law could help separate the local ordinance from the Supreme Court’s decision. In McCullen, the court ruled that Massachusetts lawmakers hadn’t exhausted all their options before implementing their 35-foot measure—San Francisco lawmakers had tried eight feet, but found it insufficient. Nonetheless, enforcement seems to have ceased.
Last week, the president and CEO of the regional Planned Parenthood branch sent a heated letter to City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who would advise the Board of Supervisors and SFPD about the legality of San Francisco’s buffer zone enforcement. The letter accused Herrera’s office of inaction and allowing a “dangerous and intolerable situation to materialize.”
While the city attorney’s office has a track record of supporting buffer zones around clinics that provide abortion, it’s being perceived as cautious: Enforcing San Francisco’s law could potentially set the city up for future legal challenges.
In a letter responding to Planned Parenthood’s complaint, the city attorney said he has been actively working with city organizers and Planned Parenthood staff.
“I am not unaccustomed to the awkward role of having to confidentially advise my clients about the risks of their enforcement efforts in the midst of a shifting legal landscape, and then respond with silence about the nature of that advice to members of the public,” Herrera wrote. His letter also called attention to the amicus brief his office and other municipalities filed in support of buffer zones when the Massachusetts case went before the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, outside the Valencia Street Planned Parenthood, anti-abortion demonstrators say that the buffer zone is already a thing of the past.
“Do what is right and don’t kill your baby,” protester Erika Hathaway called out to a woman leaving the clinic, while she was well within the 25-foot boundary. She said buffer zones have been invalidated around the country by the McCullen decision.
“The Supreme Court blew everything out of the water,” said Hathaway, a fixture among the Valencia clinic demonstrators. She said the Supreme Court’s decision reflects a commitment to free speech.
Ross Foti, another frequent protester, said the decision means that, “All size buffer zones are illegal now.”
But that isn’t entirely clear.
Hadar Aviram, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law, said the Supreme Court’s decision is vague on whether San Francisco’s ordinance is immediately invalidated or not, since the city buffer mandates only a 25-foot distance, not the 35-foot one struck down by the court. San Francisco’s earlier and smaller “bubble zone” ordinance of eight feet might also still be valid, but Aviram noted that it’s difficult to say where the decision lands in terms of exact distances.
The Valencia clinic, however, is particularly difficult to defend, due to its position on a main thoroughfare, and location on the ground floor. Even if protesters were to keep outside the painted line, clients would still need to pass them—the boundary runs across the sidewalk leading to the entrance.
Aviram said it’s possible the Supreme Court decided in the protesters’ favor in the Massachusetts case because anti-abortion protests have become, overall, less violent.
Elizabeth Creely, a Mission resident who had her first legal abortion in 1984, disagreed, and is concerned her efforts to defend access to abortion have been in vain.
“Violence probably ebbs and flows like a lot of things, but I wouldn’t say it’s a thing of the past,” Creely said. “Walking into a clinic and have someone shove a picture in your face and have someone call you a murderer…That is violence.”
Aviram and Creely suggested that if the law indeed proves unenforceable, Planned Parenthood and citizens may have to take matters into their own hands and shelter clients from protesters. Possibilities they mentioned included police or volunteer escorts, counter-protests or education programs, or putting physical barriers in place.
For now, while the city’s ordinance remains unchallenged in court, its fate is uncertain.