Kentucky is one of seven states that, as a result of medically unnecessary restrictive laws and administrative actions intended to shut down clinics, have a single abortion clinic to serve the entire population.
Not only is my home state facing the possible closure of our only clinic, but our community has, for many years, been subject to extreme and sometimes violent demonstrations by both local and national anti-abortion activists.
Recently, these individuals’ tactics have escalated to the point of threatening public peace and, in some cases, physically obstructing clinic access — a violation of federal law. The right to free speech and protest is a fundamental freedom, but it gives no one the right to threaten freedom of access to reproductive health care or public safety.
I am part of a committee of concerned residents urging our local government to create a buffer zone outside the EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky supports this effort. Our committee has collected feedback from patients who have felt threatened, fearful and discriminated against.
Additionally, feedback shows that they support adopting some measures to restrict anti-abortion extremists from approaching them as they try to access medical care.
Our survey was administered by paper questionnaire to 1,209 patients on the day of their appointments in 2016. Only 11 percent of patients stated that protesters did not bother them. Half stated that the protesters made them feel scared, nervous or unsafe. Forty-one percent stated that protesters upset them a great deal and 37 percent stated that protesters said abusive or hurtful things to them. Twenty-one percent of patients reported that they were afraid the protesters would do something harmful to them.
Patients also offered handwritten comments which paint a stark picture of the climate outside the clinic. Here is a sampling of what patients said:
▪ “The people out front were kind of hostile. It made me feel like they’d tear my living children apart. One guy with a mic talked about tying them to a tree and pulling their arms and legs off one at a time.”
▪ “... would not leave me alone, even when I asked them. The protesters were so close to me they were bumping into me, despite the very open street.”
▪ Afraid they would “bomb the building. Memorize my license plate number and seek out personal information about me using this information. Follow me home. Vandalize my vehicle. Film me. Touch me. Verbally abuse me. Diminish my feelings of self-worth.”
▪ “Who knows how violent a person standing next to a door I need to enter is going to become?!”
These fears aren’t unfounded. The National Abortion Federation has documented an increase in harassment, threats of violence and actual violence committed against abortion providers since 2015, including the shooting at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs.
Inflammatory rhetoric can embolden people who would resort to violence. In our survey, 84 percent of patients said they felt that protesters should be restricted from coming close to the clinic entrance.
Everyone knows and loves someone — a spouse, a family member, a friend — who has had an abortion. And no one would want their loved one to be screamed at, threatened, physically assaulted or outright blocked just for trying to get to a medical appointment.
One day I may need to make the deeply personal decision to seek services from this clinic, or I may accompany a sibling or friends to seek care there. If I find myself in that position, I would feel more secure knowing there is a policy in place to shield our safety and the safety of the general public, while also respecting our decisions.
Caitlin Willenbrink lives in Louiville.