Our government has a responsibility to protect people’s First Amendment right to assemble and peacefully protest. It is also incumbent on government to enforce people’s right to make their own decisions about their medical care.
At A Preferred Women’s Health Center in east Charlotte, these two fundamental rights are clashing. Anti-choice protesters are harassing and obstructing people who attempt to perform and to gain access to abortions. And the city is giving an unfair boost to the protesters, compromising the health and safety of thousands of women.
According to the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, a woman has the right to make her own decision about terminating a pregnancy in consultation with a medical professional.
But when women arrive at A Preferred Women’s Health Center, they encounter anti-choice protesters lining the sidewalk. Most days, these protesters have secured an amplified sound permit from the city. The permit allows them to use a powerful public address system to yell at the patients entering the center and blast sermons and music that patients and medical providers throughout the building can hear. They feel like they are under siege.
The protesters film patients walking into the clinic, record their license plate numbers, and offer them a deceptive form of “counseling,” which seeks to intimidate and shame them into changing their minds about terminating their pregnancies. When patients refuse to follow the protesters’ directions, they are called murderers, whores and sinners.
Would the city of Charlotte put up with this kind of harassment of patients undergoing any other kind of medical procedure other than abortion?
Mayor Jennifer Roberts has expressed support for patients’ right to secure abortion. And the city has made adjustments to its policies for obtaining a sound permit that should help end the stranglehold protesters have on this process. But much more needs to be done.
The police have given little protection to the people who work in the clinic or the patients who seek services. Protesters have repeatedly broken laws and ordinances as they stand in the street while cars approach, yet nothing is done. When protesters brought their children one weekend, police let the youngsters sit in their air-conditioned police cars, effectively offering free babysitting services. No similar courtesies have been offered to the patients or the staff who have asked for city assistance.
The clinic has requested No Parking signs be placed in front of the building, where protesters often park large RVs meant to confuse and impede patients’ access as well as hamper general street traffic. But the city has not taken this step.
Abortion is a safe medical procedure that millions of women have undergone. And 7 out of 10 Americans support providing legal and safe access to the procedure. There should be no stigma or shame surrounding abortion and absolutely no impediments to getting one.
The right to protest state policy is essential for the functioning of American democracy; the right to impede safe and equitable access to medical care is not – and never should be – any part of that right.
Lisa Levenstein is a board member of NARAL North Carolina. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org