Health

Ahead of a large planned protest outside the EMW Women’s Surgical Center downtown, the Metro Council will continue debating the creation of a buffer zone that would block protesters from coming into close contact with women entering for abortions and their escorts.

Other cities such as Chicago, Portland, San Francisco and Phoenix have buffer zones, which usually include an 8-to-15-foot zone protesters are barred from entering. Three cities have bubble zones, which include several feet of space around a clinic patient, provider or escort walking patients inside.

Robin Engel, head of the council’s Republican caucus, said he doesn’t think there’s a need for a buffer zone.

“What people are doing is peacefully counseling young ladies on other options than abortion,” Engel said.

On May 13, however, 10 demonstrators were arrested by Louisville Metro Police after blocking the entrance to the EMW Center. Engel said that’s not the norm, and he plans to fight any buffer zone legislation.

“I do not see the danger, this is one incident that happened and it’s being blown out of proportion,” Engel said.

Many of those arrested came from the far-right religious group Operation Save America, previously known as Operation Rescue. The fundamentalist group protested abortion outside Louisville high schools earlier this year. It also met privately with Gov. Matt Bevin.

The group is planning to hold its annual conference in Louisville July 22-29.

Vicki Saporta said the arrests outside EMW in May were a test for the large amount of people coming to Louisville to protest in late July. Saporta is with the National Abortion Federation, a professional association of abortion clinics that includes the EMW Center.

“We’ve learned that law enforcement response to criminal activities taking place outside clinics is essential, and it makes a huge difference whether lower activities escalate into the kind of arsons, bombing and murders that we’ve too often seen,” Saporta said.

EMW Center staff testified before the Metro Council earlier this week, saying tensions have risen outside the clinic recently.

The sidewalk outside EMW is city property, so abortion protesters routinely set up with images of fetuses and yell at women, in addition to distributing pamphlets on other options besides abortion. Saporta said a buffer zone could make it easier for local law enforcement to enforce federal law.

“Buffer zones with a clear painted line on the ground are easier for police to enforce and are clearer for demonstrators, facility staff and patients, where protests are allowed and where they’re not, and leave enough room to safely enter and exit the clinic,” Saporta said.

Metro Council members haven’t drafted legislation yet, and earlier this week, they said to expect more hearings on the issue. If city lawmakers do create a buffer zone, it could still be challenged in court.

The city of Pittsburgh is currently being sued for its buffer and bubble laws, which include 15-feet around the clinic and 8-feet around individuals entering and exiting.

Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst covering state issues at reproductive health research group the Guttmacher Institute, said the EMW Center needs a buffer zone — particularly because as the last abortion clinic in Kentucky, it is a bigger target for protesters.

“When you are attempting to enter a building and there are a group of people who are standing there, in opposition to the decision you have made, that can be intimidating,” Nash said. “You don’t need to be shouting to be intimidating.”

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.