Taylor Batten

Free speech collides with patients’ rights at Charlotte abortion clinic

Pro-life protesters demonstrating outside A Preferred Women’s Health Center in December.
Pro-life protesters demonstrating outside A Preferred Women’s Health Center in December. Observer staff photo

A great American tradition older than America itself is playing out in southeast Charlotte, and it’s causing daily pain for everyone involved. The city must make sure it doesn’t get any worse.

Charlotte, it turns out, is a national epicenter for abortion protests. There were nearly 19,000 protesters at the busiest clinic, A Preferred Women’s Health Center on Latrobe Drive, last year. Multiple national experts say Charlotte is one of the top three or four places for abortion protests, and a recent national documentary about protests focused on the city.

“We are seeing a massive influx over the past two years of protests, both in number and ferocity,” the clinic director, Calla Hales, told me. “There’s been an escalation of hostility. We have seen an uptick in aggressive behavior and speech from a lot of our protesters.”

I went to the clinic Thursday to see for myself and to talk with protesters and clinic volunteers. There were about eight protesters on the sidewalk in front of the clinic. They yelled to patients as they entered the clinic, begging them not to go in, and amplifying their pleas to 75 decibels or more with a sound system. They tried to hand out pro-life materials to cars as they pulled in, and they parked an RV out front where they hoped to give patients ultrasounds and persuade them to carry their pregnancy to term.

They were peaceful, though loud and persistent, and never stepped on the clinic’s property. One distraught patient approached them and said doctors had told her that her heart wasn’t strong enough to have a baby. “Are you going to feed my three children when I die?” she asked a protester. A man from a neighboring building came out and yelled at the protesters to turn down the volume, as it was interfering with his business.

The day I was there seemed to be a model of peaceful protest, though still tension-filled. Hales and others say it’s not always that way. Saturdays are worse, and at times parades and organized protests bring out hundreds or even thousands of protesters. They block traffic, intimidate patients, yell epithets and amplify sound that patients can hear even inside the clinic, advocates say. One notorious protester was arrested there two weeks ago and charged with communicating threats, prompting Hales to beg the city to do something about the protesters’ behavior.

I pointed out to a protester that abortion is legal. “Legality does not make it morally right,” he said.

I later pointed out to a clinic volunteer that the protesters have a constitutionally protected right to free speech. “Legal and moral are two very separate things,” he said.

And there you have it. Two sides firmly convinced they are each on superior moral ground.

No one is going to change the other’s mind, so the tension between free speech rights and access to a lawful medical procedure will persist.

It’s essential that the City Council and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department not just hope things don’t escalate. They need to constantly monitor the situation and ensure the proper balance is struck. They should consider banning amplified sound at the clinic, which exacerbates tensions. They should enforce laws and ordinances ensuring women’s access to the clinic free from intimidation. They should arrest protesters who make physical threats.

Abortion is and may always be a difficult issue. Charlotte must protect the people’s right to protest it. But it must never let that right infringe on the safety of all who are there.

tbatten@charlotteobserver.com

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