Last month, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in McCullen v. Coakley, a challenge to the 2007 Massachusetts ordinance that created a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics. The 77-year-old lead plaintiff, Eleanor McCullen, is a “lifelong Catholic” who regularly stands outside the buffer zone at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston with a baby stroller and DVD player showing images of fetal ultrasounds. McCullen and other anti-abortion protesters argue that such zones inhibit their right to free speech because they’re not able to talk with patients, while clinic workers can engage them directly.
The ordinance’s proponents argue that the zones ensure patient, clinic staff and escort safety. Anti-abortion extremists have been responsible for violent protests that include shootings, arson, bombings, butyric acid attacks and anthrax threats.
The ruling could have huge implications for clinics. In an exclusive interview with Women in the Worldcontributor Jaclyn Munson, reproductive-rights activist and clinic escort Katie Klabusich talks about why buffer zones are so necessary.
Women in the World: Why did you decide to become a clinic escort?
Katie Klabusich: The first thing I had written in 10 years--I was a journalist in my early 20s—was the story of my abortion. After writing it, I got militantly interested in doing something helpful that felt real. Somehow I got on an e-mail list that sent me an escort outreach. I don’t think I really knew what it was. My original perception was that we would help people who needed transportation. Then I got there. At the time I was living in Chicago, and there were picketers on sidewalks harassing patients. I thought ‘you’ve got to be kidding.’ One shift and I was hooked. It just takes one person looking at you, and seeing you as protection in the middle of the chaos for you to say, ‘this is what I want to do.’
WITW: What’s your experience been with the pro-life and anti-choice protesters outside of the clinic in New Jersey where you escort now?
KK: It feels different. You get different tactics and different styles of picketers depending on what the laws are. In Chicago, there are bubble zones, which are not quite the same thing as buffers. The bubble moves with the patient whereas in buffer zones, no one is allowed within 35 feet of the front door. A couple of our clinics in Chicago were across the street from Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which are mostly backed and organized by the Pro-Life Action League. The protesters would lie to patients and say “women have died in here,” “come across the street and we can help you,” “there’s free ultrasounds.” In New Jersey, there’s no bubble zone, there are no buffer laws, there’s nothing. It’s essentially a free-for-all. This past Saturday, there were forty-plus of what I call the ‘aggressive picketers,’ the people that chase women and their companions screaming things like, “Mommy, don’t kill me!” “You’ll just be the father of a dead baby!” “We can help you!” Even though they can’t. They use racial slurs and epithets. They invoke Hitler a lot. I started drawing the distinction between them and what I call ‘vigil-style picketers,’ the people that are off to the side with a rosary or a sign, praying. That’s fine. That’s free speech. It’s a different motivation. For those folks, it’s probably very much about what they consider to be life. They’re often biblical fundamentalists who believe life begins at conception. But I question the motives of the anti-choice groups that are really aggressive and threaten patients, companions, escorts and staff, who write down license plates of doctors and follow them home. Even if they believe it’s fundamentally about life, that’s not the behavior they’re exhibiting. Really, I could care less what their motives are. I’m there for the patients.
WITW: I’ve read a lot about Operation Rescue and the more aggressive pro-life and anti-choice groups that have done a lot of things you were talking about. Do you think that some protesters are confused about the difference between free speech and harassment?
KK: I think the better-known groups like Operation Rescue and the Pro-Life Action League are different than the groups I deal with now in New Jersey. Long gone are the days when they chained themselves to clinic doors. They’ve discovered that’s bad PR. They also focus on demonizing the doctors but not the patients because they know that’s bad PR. The plaintiff in Massachusetts, was a strategic choice because she’s a grandmother type who looks nice in pictures and on TV. The broader pro-life movement knows what PR is and they’ve been able to pass laws requiring burdensome regulations then pretend that they are motivated by respect for women. Behind the scenes, they’re awful. They’re slandering doctors, making it impossible to open practices. They’re doing all those things, just not publicly. There’s a group I deal with in New Jersey that is part of Abolish Human Abortion, which is part of an extremist wing of the “pro-life” movement. They’re so extreme that Operation Rescue wants nothing to do with them. They picket and preach at schools and churches, essentially saying, ‘why are you putting blame on the doctors, why aren’t you demonizing the women?’
WITW: Have you had any aggressive experiences with the protesters, anyone trying to intimidate you or incite you to do something?
KK: Sure. That’s their goal. Any aggressive picketer’s goal is to try to get you to initiate contact. It’s why clinic-escort groups are trained in complete non-engagement, all the way down to not responding to “good morning.” Eventually you drown them out because you keep telling yourself you’re there for the patient. But this past Saturday, they finally figured out that another escort and I are both vocal reproductive-justice activists and writers. About 40 of them were screaming our names when we walked up to the clinic doors. One of them followed me around whispering over my shoulder saying, “You’re a murderer, you’re a liar, we know who you are.” In an attempt to intimidate us, when we pull in, they videotape our arrival, our cars, our license plates, they publish our faces, they publish patient’s faces. They’re all about any tactic they think might be effective.
WITW: How do you think the Supreme Court will rule on the Massachusetts Buffer Zone?
KK: I’m really nervous. The thing that I fear is that they’ve already laid down the precedent for the erosion of Roe over a number of court cases. The thing that has me somewhat optimistic is that the Supreme Court has a buffer zone. Polling places have buffer zones. They can’t strike down the whole idea of a buffer zone. So they’re going to have to, if they strike it down, do it narrowly in some fashion. If they don’t, there aren’t enough places that have buffer zones anyway, so let’s get to work and do what they’re doing in New Hampshire, which is crafting legislation even before the decision comes down. People often ask, “what can I do?” If there’s harassment happening in your community, you can petition your legislators to enact ordinances that are effective. We all have the power to do that and protect our own communities.