Planned Parenthood protests need buffer zones

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WALNUT CREEK — The city is set to demand that anti-abortion protesters stand eight feet from anyone entering the local Planned Parenthood clinic, where twice-weekly protests have prompted many patients to say they they don’t feel safe. .

While there are many such clinics in the Bay Area, officials say Walnut Creek has become the Bay Area’s ground zero for the long-running abortion debate, with protests often leading to heated clashes and even violence.

Meanwhile, even bigger battles over the issue are taking place elsewhere. Last year’s efforts to appeal Texas’ ban on most abortions hit a major hurdle Monday that will send the law to the state Supreme Court.

And a Mississippi law that would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy is pending before US Supreme Court justices, which may take months to issue a ruling.

Although the city council has yet to formally adopt the eight-foot buffer zones in Walnut Creek, it voted unanimously Tuesday night to proceed. Board members agreed that they had heard far too many women who felt harassed and intimidated upon entering the clinic.

“With recent laws enacted in Texas and Mississippi, protesters in Walnut Creek appear to have become more emboldened and confrontational,” Councilman Kevin Wilk said.

WALNUT CREEK, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 8: An anti-abortion protester stands on the sidewalk outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Walnut Creek, Calif. on Friday, October 8, 2021. (Dylan Bouscher/Bay Area News Group)

In addition to buffer zones, council has asked staff to develop policies to deal with protesters who use megaphones or other tools to amplify their voices, loiter in aisles and pin signs or posters to utility poles. , which are private properties.

The council’s decision follows dozens of comments from members of the public who supported the creation of buffer zones, including women who visit the clinic and volunteers who help escort patients inside.

One responder, a Walnut Creek resident named Sierra, recalled being “young and stupid” with her high school sweetheart at Las Lomas High by not waiting seven days for her birth control to become effective, which leads to unwanted pregnancy.

“Luckily Planned Parenthood saved me – I was able to get the morning after pill at the clinic so I didn’t become another pregnant teenager,” Sierra said, adding that the health workers who helped her “didn’t put me to shame, and if there had been a group of protesters standing guard outside the clinic at the time trying to put me to shame, even though the police were in tow, I wouldn’t have maybe not been so brave.

Now, years later, Sierra has said she’s engaged to another University of California graduate and “we can’t wait to have a family that we can plan for.”

Gilda Gonzalez, CEO of Planned Parenthood Northern California, said patients often feel frightened by antagonistic protesters, and those in Walnut Creek are among the worst offenders.

“With this action, Walnut Creek can be a leader in California, showing other communities how to effectively counter hostile protesters who use their mistaken beliefs to interfere with the rights and personal freedoms of our patients,” Gonzalez said.

WALNUT CREEK, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 8: Robin Poppino-Kurtz (right) chats with another volunteer in a parking lot at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Walnut Creek, Calif. on Friday, October 8, 2021. Volunteers help escort women who show up for office appointments. (Dylan Bouscher/Bay Area News Group)

There is precedent in the region for restricting protests at Planned Parenthood clinics. San Jose established an eight-foot buffer zone in the 1990s, modeling it after Colorado’s own buffer zone that withstood a Supreme Court challenge in 2000.

Last year, the Napa City Council created a 30-foot buffer zone that prevents Planned Parenthood protesters from shouting, using amplified sound, and obstructing or following visitors to the city’s clinic, according to the Napa Valley Register.

Walnut Creek has had a history of contentious protests at the Planned Parenthood Health Center on Oakland Boulevard. The one-story clinic is surrounded by a narrow sidewalk, and protests often involve dozens of attendees thronging it, holding signs and chanting religious prayers.

In the spring of 2020, a protester was arrested for allegedly “confronting and yelling at staff, volunteers and family members of patients” inside the clinic, according to city staff.

Later that year, private security guards hired by protesters pepper-sprayed counter-protesters — a spurt of violence that led to charges of assault and possession of tear gas, prompting Wilk to propose the creation of buffer zones.

And last summer, a man and two anti-abortion protesters were arrested after getting into a physical fight that began when protesters called the man and a woman obscene names as the couple walked into the clinic, according to city staff.

The largest group organizing in front of Planned Parenthood twice a week is the local chapter of 40 Days For Life, a national anti-abortion organization that tracks how many abortion clinic workers it convinces to quit. their jobs.

The Walnut Creek chapter of 40 Days for Life declined several interview requests, but previously sent the news agency a “declaration of peace” that participants in the protests must sign.

Among a long list of pledges, the signatories to the statement pledge not to block aisles or use violent language, and to “seek only peaceful, prayerful, and legal solutions to abortion violence.”

Several buffer zone opponents spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, but it was unclear if any of them were officially affiliated with 40 Days For Life. They read aloud passages from the Book of Psalms that are interpreted as prohibiting abortion and said calling them hostile was part of a smear campaign.

Alexander, a longtime resident of Walnut Creek, said the town has become an “ugly place” to champion a “baby-killing business.”

“We try to love everyone and let them know what they’re doing is wrong, that they have other options,” Alexander said, later adding that “we really need to repent, bring the Christ and leave certain things to Him”. .”

A Brentwood woman said the protesters were just showing up to tell abortion candidates about alternatives to the procedure.

“You are worth fighting for, I am worth fighting for, life is worth fighting for,” she said. “When we go out on the sidewalk, we don’t do much of what we are accused of today. We offer concrete solutions to women in crisis.

Councilor Loella Haskew noted that in her own personal prayers for others, she does not presume to know “what was God’s purpose in putting that other person in a particular situation.”

“I certainly don’t know what this person has ever sought from God, and what direction God has given them,” Haskew said. “Do I still agree with the result? Absolutely not. Do I continue to have faith in God and in the system? Yes of course.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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