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Metro Council To Debate Allowing Health Care Facilities To Create 'Buffer Zones'

EMW Women's Surgical Center has resumed abortions up to 21 weeks and six days, following clarification from a federal judge.
EMW Women's Surgical Center has resumed abortions up to 21 weeks and six days, following clarification from a federal judge.

Members of the Metro Council are expected to debate whether health care facilities such as the EMW Women's Surgical Center on Market St. can implement enforceable buffer zones to allow patrons to safely access their entrances.

Councilman Brandon Coan (D-8), a co-sponsor of the ordinance, said the issue was made urgent by the threat of COVID-19, but that the need already existed. Supporters have lobbied council for this type of measure for years, saying anti-abortion protesters who approach women entering the facility put the patients at risk.

"It is designed to prevent unwanted touching of narrowly-defined, medically at risk population that is entitled to health care access and a heightened expectation of privacy," Coan said during a two-hour debate of the proposed ordinance at last week's community affairs, health and education committee meeting.

The ordinance passed out of committee in a 4 to 2 vote.

Coan said he does not intend for the ordinance to expire after the pandemic ends.

"No person shall knowingly obstruct, detain, hinder, impede or block another person’s entry to or exit from a healthcare facility," the current text of the ordinance reads.

It goes on to say the following may enter the buffer zone during a facility's posted business hours: those the owner invites or allows to enter or leave; people using the sidewalk or street right-of-way to pass through the area; public safety or municipal employees on the job; or employees or agents of the facility on the job.

The ordinance proposes that the Department of Public Works would post or paint signage to mark the buffer zone. It says that people in violation will receive a citation after an initial written warning, and the fine could range from $100 to $500.

While the option to create a 12-foot-wide buffer zone would be open to other health care facilities as well, most of last week's discussion centered on the abortion provider. It is a health care facility that regularly attracts protesters, even during the pandemic.

Opponents of the measure raised questions ranging from the protesters' First Amendment rights to who would pay for overtime for police called in to enforce citations called for in the ordinance.

Councilman Robin Engel (R-22), who is not a member of the committee, referenced his experience working as a "peaceful sidewalk counselor," asking repeatedly what access they would have to the sidewalk under this legislation. He said escorts are more likely to touch the women entering the clinic than the protesters.

"Why doesn't a peaceful protester, an innocent ... lady that wants to hand out a brochure to somebody entering the clinic, peacefully, why are they getting pushed off the sidewalk?" he asked. "Are we saying that these escorts have separate privileges versus the private citizens out there?"

The full council will consider the ordinance on Thursday, August 20 during its meeting at 6 p.m.

Amina Elahi is LPM's City Editor. Email Amina at aelahi@lpm.org.