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Metro Council Narrowly Rejects Buffer Zones For Health Care Facilities

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.

Metro Council Democrats failed to reach a compromise to pass an ordinance giving health care facilities the option to create a "buffer zone" near their entrances.

Advocates have pushed for such a zone around the EMW Women’s Surgical Center on Market St. for years. Outgoing councilman Brandon Coan (D-8) led the charge on this ordinance, which would apply to other health care facilities as well. He pinned its timing to the COVID-19 crisis.

"This is an ordinance about public safety and public health, people have the right to safe and dignified access to legal health care services," he said, adding that it was not about debating the ethics of abortion.

He said protesters approaching potentially medically fragile patrons could create a dangerous situation by increasing the risk of transmitting the disease.

But some council members argued that other protesters in Louisville, who have been gathering and marching since late May, were not being regulated this way.

Councilwoman Cindi Fowler (D-14) said Louisville's chief health strategist, Sarah Moyer, had told committee members a 12-foot-wide buffer zone was needed to maintain social distancing. Prior to that, council members were told racial justice protesters were not increasing the spread of the coronavirus because they were outside, she said.

"So we're getting mixed messages, it's kind of like a double standard," Fowler said.

The ordinance failed in a 12 to 13 vote. All seven council Republicans voted against, along with six Democrats.

Democrats Jessica Green (D-1), Barbara Shanklin (D-2), Keisha Dorsey (D-3), Barbara Sexton Smith (D-4), Donna Purvis (D-5), David James (D-6), Brandon Coan (D-8), Bill Hollander (D-9), Kevin Triplett (D-15), Markus Winkler (D-17), Nicole George (D-21) and Brent Ackerson (D-26) voted for the ordinance.

They were edged out by a bipartisan group: Pat Mulvihill (D-10), Kevin Kramer (R-11), Rick Blackwell (D-12), Mark Fox (D-13), Cindi Fowler (D-14), Scott Reed (R-16), Marilyn Parker (R-18), Anthony Piagentini (R-19), Stuart Benson (R-20), Robin Engel (R-22), James Peden (R-23), Madonna Flood (D-24) and David Yates (D-25).

Some of the Democrats who voted against the measure said they may have gone the other way had compromises been made. One proposed amendment that would have required facilities to have their own security personnel to enforce the buffer zone failed, while another that called for sunsetting the ordinance after the COVID-19 state of emergency is lifted was not voted on due to the body's decision to limit the time of the debate on this item.

Members of both parties expressed concerns that the proposal could infringe upon protesters' First Amendment rights.

"You're limiting free speech and you've advocated for free speech for every other group of protesters," said Marilyn Parker (R-18).

Councilman David Yates (D-25), who will head to the state senate next year, said he was frustrated by the failure to reach compromise. After some Republicans spoke about the value of the message of the sidewalk counselors outside EMW, Yates said the council's decision should not be based on the content of the speech. He said he was concerned geographic limitations on that speech could violate free speech rights.

Coan, the lead sponsor, said such zones exist across the country and are constitutional because they are "narrowly tailored," and provide other avenues for communication.

Members of the public who supported the ordinance reacted to the vote on social media, with some calling for the Democrats who voted against it to be challenged in their next primary elections.

Ahead of the vote Thursday, Pastors Joseph Spurgeon and Jerry Dorris criticized the proposal, saying in a news release the council was using the COVID-19 crisis to protect abortion, silence free speech and abuse its power.

This post has been updated.

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