In the abortion wars, a new ground zero

Lisa Belkin
Chief National Correspondent

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: Planned Parentlhood volunteer greeter Sharon Bressler stands on the corner of Congress and Elm Streets in Portland, Maine. Anti-abortion protester Leslie Sneddon, Richmond, Maine, stands nearby. (Photograph by Alexandra Daley-Clark for Yahoo News)

On this Friday, as with every Friday lately, the police officer was the first to arrive. Just before 9 a.m. he parked his black-and-white cruiser in front of the ornate doorway at 443 Congress Street here in Portland, Maine, then planted his 6-foot-6 frame by the front door.

Next, the clinic volunteers appeared. On this particular morning there were three, all wearing neon pink vests with photocopied sheets of paper taped to the front that said, "Planned Parenthood of Northern New England GREETER." They walked back and forth along the cobbled brick sidewalk, on the lookout for patients who might like company entering the building.

A few minutes later, the protesters came — putting coins in the parking meters, pulling their anti-abortion placards from their cars, finding their places for the morning. Most went across the street; a few stood on the corner of Congress and Elm.

But one small cluster chose a spot directly across from the clinic door.

That closest place — a few yards from the entrance, near enough to touch the entering patients, certainly near enough to talk to them — represents the latest battleground in the decades-old war over abortion in the United States. In some places, like Texas, the abortion fight is over whether existing clinics can stay open at all. In others, like here in Portland, the fight is about a small strategic patch of sidewalk. Until very recently, this stretch of Congress Street, like similar stretches throughout the country, was a "buffer zone" separating protesters from patients at abortion sites.

But this summer the Supreme Court declared one such zone in Massachusetts unconstitutional, and over the months local authorities in most other states have lifted almost all of them.

Here in Portland, as in other cities that once had buffer zone laws and now do not, all the players in the ongoing abortion drama are trying to figure out what that means. Just inside the door here a pair of unused signs lean against the wall of the building's entryway: "Reproductive Health Care Facility Buffer Zone. No demonstrating, patrolling or congregating in this area." And outside, where those signs once stood, a lone police officer, three clinic volunteers and two dozen demonstrators navigate what's next in a 50-year-long debate.

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Anti-abortion protester Donna Hebert, Waterboro, Maine, holds a sign while walkig down Congress Street, home of Planned Parenthood in Portland, Maine. Her son, Abraham (8) is to her left. (Photograph by Alexandra Daley-Clark for Yahoo News)

Donna Hebert was 15 years old when, she says, she had her first abortion. Three more would follow over the next six years until, at the age of 21, Hebert says she was saved and began to attend regular vigils aimed at closing an abortion clinic in Mississippi when she'd lived there in the early '90s. Among her favorite photos are ones of her oldest son, now a 23-year-old father himself, back when she'd brought him to those early protests in his stroller.

Hebert moved to the Portland area in 1995, where she would raise six children, homeschooling them all. She didn't know there was an abortion clinic in the city, she says, until the summer of 2012, when a friend in North Carolina called to tell her.

Her first protest was a solo one — she sat praying alone on a bench, holding a small sign with a photo of a fetus in the womb. Soon after she was introduced to another local woman — Leslie Sneddon, a mother of two, who had also had four abortions before she'd been born again — and the two began to come to the clinic together every week.

Eventually they were joined by the Fitzgeralds, a fundamentalist couple with five children. The three families became friendly. Parents, toddlers, teens and tweens all homeschool together, do Bible study together, socialize together, protest together. From the summer of 2012, when their protests began, until late fall of 2013, when a buffer zone was created by the Portland City Council, the families would stand directly in front of the clinic doors every Friday morning. The Sneddons brought their two preteen boys, Hebert came with her 13-year-old twin girls, their 9-year-old brother recently adopted from Ethiopia and her daughter-in-law, who brought her infant son. They used the weekly outing as a home-schooling field trip, because, Sneddon's husband, Jeffrey, says, "This is communications, history, civics, public speaking all rolled into one."

They were not obstructionist, they say. As they describe it they were a quiet line, a prayerful presence, singing hymns (until they were asked by police to stop because the sound could be heard two flights up at the clinic) and hoping to change some minds.

Anti-abortion protester Marguerite Fitzgerald stands directly in front of the sign next to the door of Planned Parenthood of Portland, Maine. (Photograph by Alexandra Daley-Clark for Yahoo News)

"No, we've never had anyone turn around," Hebert says, when asked if she thinks she has ever prevented a patient from keeping an appointment for an abortion. "So why am I here? When I had my first abortion, if there had been people standing outside like this, I would have run to them. So here I am."

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Wearing her pink vest and most comfortable walking shoes, Sharon Bressler spends many Friday mornings within a few feet of Hebert, yet what she sees is completely different.

"They never got physical, but they were intrusive," she says of the early days, before the buffer zone, when the protesters formed their line by the clinic door.

"They would stand on both sides of the sidewalk, one line with their backs to the building, the other with their backs to the street, so that patients had to walk between them," she says. "They would ask patients questions: 'Are you having an abortion? Can I talk to you? Can I help you?' By the time the patients got inside, they would sometimes end up upstairs at the desk in tears."

Bressler has been a Planned Parenthood patient since the 1990s and a volunteer there since 2007, when she retired as a schoolteacher in the Portland Public Schools. She donates her time, she says, because she's seen the difference the clinic can make in a young woman's life. "I had students who were patients there," she said of her eighth-graders. "Birth control, STD testing. Whenever I knew a social worker was taking one of my kids with risky behavior to Planned Parenthood, I was relieved."

At first she did mostly photocopying and filing at the clinic, but after the Hebert, Sneddon and Fitzgerald families began their protests, volunteers were recruited to become "greeters" (a job that used to be known as "escort," a term that was dropped because of its prostitution double entendre).

Anti-abortion protester Daniel Fitzgerald and his family, and counter protestor Cory Tracy across the street from Portland, Maine's Planned Parenthood clinic. (Photograph by Alexandra Daley-Clark for Yahoo News)

During the 18 months before the buffer zone was created, the volunteers and the protesters saw each other almost every Friday, sharing the sidewalk, avoiding eye contact, learning one another's names but never speaking. Periodically, attendance and tempers flared — such as when Mike Fink, who owned a restaurant on the block, offered free sandwiches and coffee to anyone who came out to counterprotests with pro-choice signs.

Then, in November of last year, the Portland City Council unanimously passed its buffer zone law. By then Fink had closed his restaurant because "I decided kids holding signs of dead babies isn't good for business," and Planned Parenthood had released a survey of 200 Portland clinic patients that found that 70 percent felt "harassed and intimidated" by the protests.

The 39-foot zone established by the City Council on Nov. 20 effectively required the protesters to move across Congress Street, where they could shout toward patients but not approach them. The warning signs replaced the greeters and the police officers on the sidewalk, and for a few months there was a new, quieter tableau in front of the clinic.

But from their new positions, all the players knew this was just a temporary pause. A lawsuit brought by the Fitzgeralds against the ordinance was making its way through the Maine legal system, charging violation of the protesters' right to free speech. At the same time, the Massachusetts law on which Portland's (and others across the country) was based was already on its way to the Supreme Court.

In January, in the case of McCullen v. Coakley, the high court struck down the foundational law, effectively taking laws like Portland's with it.

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The children of anti-abortion protesters hold signs across from the Planned Parenthood clinic in Portland, Maine. (l to r) Isaiah Sneddon (10), Abraham Hebert (8), and Marston Sneddon (13). (Photograph by Alexandra Daley-Clark for Yahoo News)

Officer Graham Hults was not on duty at the clinic before the buffer zones, but it has been his beat since they were lifted. The Planned Parenthood clinic contracts with the city police force for Hults' presence, and from where he stands he thinks the protesters are purposely toning down their behavior.

Like an industry that prefers self-regulation to government intervention, the families "have been making a point to be a little more respectful," he says. They know that in other places where buffer zones have been dismantled, other regulations have grown up in their place. In Boston, for instance, where the clinic challenged in McCullen v. Coakley is based, the 35-foot zone law was replaced by a law that allows protests at any distance unless and until those protests become disruptive or block the entrance. Similar alternatives are said to be under consideration in Portland.

"Mostly they still stay across the street," Hults says of the Portland families, "just a few by the front door." On this day, that's Hebert and her twins. There have not been any double rows of protesters in front of the entrance (a formation that volunteers called "the gantlet") and no more shouting so loudly that it can be heard within.

Bressler has also noticed the difference. Her theory is that the protesters have read McCullen v. Coakley and paid particular attention to the court's respect for the quiet manner of McCullen and her fellow plaintiffs outside the Boston clinic. Writing the opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts described that approach: "They attempt to engage women, approaching the clinics in what they call 'sidewalk counseling,' which involves offering information about alternatives to abortion and helping to pursue those options … McCullen and the other petitioners consider it essential to maintain a caring demeanor, a calm tone of voice, and direct eye contact during these exchanges."

Says Bressler: "My impression is that a lot of the Supreme Court's sympathy for the free speech rights of protesters coalesced in their respect for McCullen. If her behavior was what made the court decide that her free speech rights superseded the rights of women to get medical help without intrusion, then it would make sense for them to behave more like Eleanor McCullen. Of course I can only just guess at their motivation."

Planned Parenthood volunteer greeter Joan McDonald of Portland, Maine waits for patients on Congress Street outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Portland, Maine. Protestors and police stand in the background. (Photograph by Alexandra Daley-Clark for Yahoo News)

Ask the protesters, and they say their reasons are far less strategic than Hults would guess, and far more practical than Bressler thinks.

"When we were moved across the street, we kind of liked it," Hebert says. "There's more sun in the mornings and that's helpful in the Portland winter when we huddle together to keep warm."

Perhaps more important, from across the street "we realized that we could be seen by people inside the building who were looking out the window at us. Simple as that."

And so it went for the rest of the morning, as those on both sides of a national argument parried and positioned themselves around one pivotal stretch of sidewalk. They were close together, and yet as distant as possible. Familiar to one another, but unknown.

"They'll be leaving any minute now," predicted Bressler as it neared 11:30. Every week the volunteers watch as the protesters, as if on some unspoken cue, load their posters into their cars and drive away. How they decide when time is up has always been a mystery to those who work for the clinic. There are theories: They need to leave in time for a church service; they decide that no new patients will arrive that morning; the children are getting restless.

Turns out it's none of those.

"When the parking meter runs out," Hebert said as she and Sneddon started packing to leave. "The parking meters are for two hours, and at a dollar an hour it does add up over the year."