I’ve been a volunteer escort at an abortion clinic in Englewood, New Jersey, for the past six months. For the first three months of my time as a clinic escort, our clinic had no buffer zone.
Our clinic escort program was started in December 2013 by two incredible activists who organized the program in response to the increasing vitriol that was taking place in front of the clinic. My first few weeks on the sidewalk were a rude awakening about abortion access in my own state, as I tried mightily to walk patients through a literal gauntlet of shame and intimidation…
In mid-March, the Englewood City Council voted unanimously to enact an eight-foot buffer zone at the city’s abortion clinics, among other health-care facilities. The ordinance went into effect a few weeks later, on April 1. The clinic has not been the same since.
While the anti-choice protesters are still there, the mood is noticeably different. Some of the“counselors” from a nearby crisis pregnancy center still shove literature filled with junk science into patients’ faces, and yes, we still have some men who scream at patients and companions who enter the clinic. This tells us that the buffer zone doesn’t infringe on anyone’s First Amendment rights; they are still free to interact with patients outside of the eight-foot zone, and they are doing just that.
But the demeanor of patients overall has really changed. They feel safer knowing that there is a space up ahead at which point no one can get in their faces.
Anti-choice protesters have stopped overtly blocking the sidewalk, not allowing patients and their companions to pass, and protesters have stopped physically jostling for dominance, shoving their backs and sometimes elbows into escorts and occasionally patients. Patients aren’t subject to physical harassment, and that isn’t just a good thing—it’s their right.
The reason that buffer zones are often created specifically for abortion clinics is because this kind of harassment and intimidation simply doesn’t exist in any other branch of health care.
A patient seeking care for tonsilitis (or)… a broken arm…isn’t told they’ve defiled their body (and) that God will punish them, or filmed against their will (with) their images spread across the Internet with the words “murderer” and “sinner” underneath. But a patient seeking abortion care is subject to all of this and more…all in the name of “free speech.”
I don’t know what the future holds for buffer zone legislation in Englewood or anywhere else—if, for instance, every single buffer zone law will be struck down, domino-style. But I sincerely hope that every person who feels that buffer zones infringe on the First Amendment rights of “peaceful protesters” takes a little time out of their Saturday morning to see what really goes on at abortion clinics, to experience firsthand the horrendous abuse and terrifying intimidation that patients endure in order to access constitutionally protected health care.