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Anti-Abortion Protesters at New York Clinic Did Not Harass Patients, Judge Rules

NEW YORK — On Saturdays since 2012, protesters have gathered outside the Choices Women’s Medical Center in Jamaica, Queens, starting at 7 a.m. to urge women arriving at the clinic not to have an abortion.

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Anti-Abortion Protesters at New York Clinic Did Not Harass Patients, Judge Rules
Jeffery C. Mays
, New York Times

NEW YORK — On Saturdays since 2012, protesters have gathered outside the Choices Women’s Medical Center in Jamaica, Queens, starting at 7 a.m. to urge women arriving at the clinic not to have an abortion.

For the next three hours, according to a lawsuit filed in June 2017 by Eric Schneiderman, the former New York attorney general, protesters violated federal, state and city laws guaranteeing access to reproductive health care by crowding women as they entered the clinic and ignoring their requests to be left alone. Protesters tried to block the entrance with 3-by-5-foot signs with what they said were pictures of aborted fetuses and allegedly made death threats to people trying to escort women — not all of whom were there for an abortion — into the clinic.

The lawsuit against 13 of the regular protesters asked a U.S. judge to issue a preliminary injunction against the protests and create a 16-foot buffer zone around the clinic.

But in a ruling issued late Friday denying the request for the injunction, Judge Carol Bagley Amon of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District said the attorney general’s office “failed to show” that any of the 13 defendants “had the intent to harass, annoy, or alarm” patients, their companions or the people escorting women into the clinic.

“The interactions on the sidewalk outside Choices were generally quite short, and there is no credible evidence that any protester disregarded repeated requests to be left alone over an extended period or changed his or her tone or message in response to requests to be left alone in a way that suggested an intent to harass, annoy, or alarm,” Amon wrote in her decision.

The ruling left advocates of abortion rights on alert.

“What’s happening now is crossing a line,” said Jean Bucaria, deputy director of the National Organization for Women, New York City. “You shouldn’t have to be screamed at, yelled at or harassed to get to a doctor.”

Although the ruling did not pass judgment on the federal, state and city laws prohibiting the obstruction of access to reproductive health clinics, it came on the heels of the retirement this summer of Justice Anthony Kennedy, a swing vote on the U.S. Supreme Court on issues like abortion rights. A conservative successor could vote to weaken or overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established the constitutional right to have an abortion.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that California “crisis pregnancy centers,” which oppose abortion on religious grounds, do not have to provide women with information about how to terminate their pregnancies.

“We are all worried about Roe v. Wade being overturned, but the effect of this decision will whittle away at abortion rights,” said Rory I. Lancman, a Queens councilman who is the chairman of the Council’s committee on the justice system. The Choices Women’s Medical Center sits just outside his district. “What’s the value of having abortion rights if you can’t get to the clinic without being harassed or humiliated?”

Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for Barbara Underwood, the current New York attorney general, said the office was considering its options regarding an appeal.

“The evidence detailed a clear pattern of harassment,” Spitalnick said, citing a successful effort in 2012 to get a buffer zone around a Planned Parenthood clinic in Utica in a similar case.

Under Schneiderman, who resigned in May after being accused of physically abusing multiple women, the office conducted a yearlong investigation on the actions of protesters outside the clinic. The office set up a hidden camera, used female patient decoys who wore cameras to see what happened when they tried to enter the clinic, and put hidden microphones on people escorting women.

But after seeing the evidence, including testimony and written logs from the escorts, as well as questionnaires from patients, Amon relied mostly on video from the clinic’s security cameras, which she weighted heavily.

Amon said witness testimony exaggerated the “impropriety of the defendants’ conduct” and omitted “mitigating circumstances.” She called the patient questionnaires “hearsay.”

“In our view the attorney general should have never brought this case,” said Stephen Crampton, a lawyer with the Thomas More Society, a Chicago public interest law firm that litigates on behalf of anti-abortion groups, and co-counsel for 10 of the protesters from Church at the Rock in Brooklyn. “This was more about politics than justice.”

Crampton said the case was really about First Amendment freedom of speech rights.

Conservative groups have recently used freedom of speech arguments to win several cases before the Supreme Court on issues like labor unions and campaign finance reform.

“This case encapsulates the intellectual battle going on in our nation,” Crampton said.

In a statement, Kenneth W. Griepp, the senior pastor of Church at the Rock and a defendant, said his “sidewalk counselors” would “continue to offer compassion to those who see abortion as the only way out of an unexpected pregnancy.” Amon was nominated by President George H.W. Bush and confirmed in 1990.

Opponents of Friday’s decision said that Amon had ignored what amounted to a critical pattern of harassment by protesters and focused on the inability of escorts and staff members to recall details from incidents that occurred years before.

Merle Hoffman, president and owner of the Choices Women’s Medical Center, founded the health care facility in 1971. She said the judge “dismissed the lived experiences of the patients, the staff and the escorts” in her decision.

Patients who make it through the gantlet of protesters on Saturdays are often shaken once they get inside, she said. On Saturday, she said, the clinic had about 100 gynecological patients and 26 who came in regarding an abortion.

“They don’t make a distinction,” Hoffman said of the protesters.

Amon confirmed that the attorney general’s office has the purview to protect women’s reproductive rights and did not rule that New York City’s clinic access law was too vague, as the defendants’ lawyers argued. The judge also cautioned protesters against continuing to speak to patients who affirmatively ask to be left alone. She issued a warning about her ruling.

“A word of caution — this decision should not embolden the defendants to engage in more aggressive conduct,” Amon wrote. “In a few instances noted, several of the defendants’ actions came close to crossing the line from activity protected by the First Amendment to conduct prohibited by” state law.


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