Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Anti-abortion protesters continue to gather at clinics despite stay at home orders

April 21, 2020

As states impose social distancing requirements and emergency measures to ensure adequate medical resources to combat COVID-19, several states are taking the opportunity to ban abortions.  Yet anti-abortion protesters are continuing to gather at clinics harassing patients and providers in violation of stay-at-home orders with mixed responses from state officials and the courts.

In a press statement, Reverend Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, President of the National Abortion Federation has criticized these protests because "In many places, these protesters are able to walk right up to patients as they enter or exit the facility or surround them as they walk to and from their cars." While anti-abortion protests have long been part of the lives of abortion providers and patients, according the Ragsdale, their behavior "can feel particularly threatening to patents now that concerns about the coronavirus are heightened.  We have even heard reports of protesters intentionally coughing on clinic escorts and making physical contact with patients and providers attempting to enter clinics."

Earlier this month, police in Charlotte, NC. were forced to disperse a crowd of 50 anti-abortion protesters outside of Charlotte's Preferred Women's Health Center and arrested 8 people for violating the governor's stay at home order. After the arrest, Senator Ted Cruz tweeted support for the protesters, asserting that the gathering was "fully consistent w/ public safety" and violated First Amendment Rights. Police have also arrested protesters outside of a clinic in Greensboro and issued a citation outside a Planned Parenthood in San Francisco.

In Michigan after citations were issued to protesters who gathered outside of Detroit clinics, violating the state's stay at home order, some of the protesters alleged that their protest was a religious gathering, and one protester sued, claiming that he was engaged in peaceful expressive activity and maintained a safe distance.  The state agreed to dismiss the charges against him and the Governor's office issued guidance stating that under the state's stay at home order:

Persons may engage in expressive activity protected by the First Amendment within the State of Michigan, but must adhere to social distancing measures recommending by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including remaining at least six feet from people outside the person's household.

While the guidance appears to balance First Amendment rights with responsible public health restrictions, enforcing the guidance may be more difficult in practice. In a letter to the governor, Reverend Ragsdale expressed concern that anti-abortion protesters have not been practicing social distancing and have been engaging in "large gatherings of protesters" outside of clinics and intentionally harass abortion patients and providers.  "These protesters have used the guise of holding "worship services" to gather outside of clinics, needlessly increasing the risk of exposure to and transmission of COVID-19, both among each other and to health care providers and the patients they serve."






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