Tuesday, July 24, 2018
Anti-Abortion Protesters at Queens Clinic Did Not Harass Patients, Judge Rules
July 22, 2018 (New York Times): Anti-Abortion Protesters at Queens Clinic Did Not Harass Patients, Judge Rules, by Jeffery C. Mays:
On Saturdays since 2012, protesters gather 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.
According to a lawsuit filed in June 2017 by former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, 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 routinely attempted to block the clinic entrance with large signs "with what they said were pictures of aborted fetuses," and made alleged death threats to people trying to escort women into the clinic.
The lawsuit against thirteen of the regular protesters asked a federal judge to issue a preliminary injunction against the protests and create a 16-foot buffer zone around the clinic.
In a ruling issued late this past Friday denying the request for the injunction, Judge Carol Bagley Amon of the Federal 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."
Wrote Judge Amon: “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.”
The ruling has abortion rights advocates, already alarmed about the fate of Roe v. Wade following Anthony Kennedy's retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court, on high 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.”
In NIFLA v. Becerra, issued this past June, the Supreme Court ruled that California crisis pregnancy centers do not have to provide women with information about how to terminate their pregnancies.
Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for New York attorney general Barbara D. Underwood, said the office was considering an appeal.
Under Mr. Schneiderman, the attorney general's 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."
After considering the evidence, which included testimony and written logs from clinic escorts, as well as questionnaires from patients, Judge Amon "relied mostly on video from the clinic’s security cameras, which she weighted heavily."
Judge Amon said witness testimony exaggerated the “impropriety of the defendants’ conduct” and omitted “mitigating circumstances.” She called the patient questionnaires “hearsay.”
Judge Amon was nominated by President George H.W. Bush and confirmed in 1990.
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 gauntlet of protesters on Saturdays are often shaken once they get inside, Hoffman said. On Saturday, the clinic had about 100 gynecological patients and twenty-six who came in regarding an abortion.
“They don’t make a distinction,” Ms. Hoffman said of the protesters.
Judge Amon affirmed that the attorney general’s office has the purview to protect reproductive rights and did not rule that New York City’s clinic access law was too vague, as the defendants’ lawyers had argued. The judge also cautioned protesters against continuing to speak to patients who affirmatively ask to be left alone.
In a warning about her ruling, Judge Amon wrote: "“A word of caution — this decision should not embolden the defendants to engage in more aggressive conduct...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.