Protesters who picket outside any health facility in the city of St. Louis would have to do so from farther away under a bill perfected Friday by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.
By a slim vote of 15-13, the Board perfected Board Bill 34, which would increase safety around health facilities by creating an eight-foot buffer zone around health care facility driveways.
The bill states that no one “shall knowingly enter, remain on, or create any obstruction within the driveway of a health care facility or within a public way or sidewalk within 8 feet of any portion of such facility’s driveway during the facility’s posted business hours.”
The bill’s introduction stems from a series of calls to law enforcement at the only Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis. Calls of impeding traffic, which is stopped by protesters at the clinic on Forest Park Parkway, as well as peace disturbances rose from 38 in 2015 to 73 in 2017.
Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia, 6th Ward, who sponsored the bill, said the goal is to ensure that patients at clinics like Planned Parenthood and other facilities such as hospitals feel safe when trying to get care.
“This is a really important bill for public safety here in the city of St. Louis,” Ingrassia said. “I sat down with a wide variety of stakeholders from the ALCU, Planned Parenthood NERAL Missouri, to make sure that we could tailor a bill that would legally protect first amendment rights of demonstrators but also balance the constitutional rights that people have according to the U.S. Supreme Court to access healthcare facilities free from harassment.”
Since its introduction, however, some critics have claimed it infringes upon First Amendment rights. At least 13 Aldermen, including Carol Howard, 14th Ward, who called the bill “a slippery slope”, said the approval will only warrant more buffer zones at other places in the near future.
“I think that once we start poking that bear, we’re going to look for a whole lot more coming back at us, and also some more laws to prohibit Planned Parenthood from carrying out their mission,” Howard said.
Alderwoman Sharon Tyus, 1st Ward, said she supports a woman’s right to have a choice but fears greater implications on protesters with the passage of the bill.
She also urged the Planned Parenthood clinic to put up a sign telling patients where to go, so that they may avoid protesters altogether.
“We don’t have to make laws for everything, there are other ways to address it,” Tyus said. “(Planned Parenthood) has not convinced me that there is a need for this law.”
Alderwoman Sarah Martin, 11th Ward, said the bill is less about protesting and more about “sidewalk counselors” who often mislead prospective patients.
“They falsely coerce women and say that they’re with Planned Parenthood and to sign up here or that they’re medical professionals,” Martin said. “That’s not protesting, that’s lying and that’s also a public safety issue.”
Others voiced support for the measure, including Alderwoman Cara Spencer, 20th Ward, who noted that Planned Parenthood provides more services beyond just abortion, such as well woman exams and STD testing.
“This is more than a decision about a woman’s right to choose,” Spencer said. “In a state like Missouri where we have refused to expand Medicaid and we have a population where almost 30 percent of the population lives below poverty, Planned Parenthood is the only medical option for many women in our city.”
In response to the passage, Jesse Lawder, vice president of marketing and communications at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, issued a statement in support of the decision.
“Planned Parenthood is encouraged by the Board of Aldermen passing Board Bill 34, which will improve safety of patients, staff, volunteers and protestors at St. Louis health care facilities, including ours,” Lawder said in a statement. “We are supportive of First Amendment rights, and we believe this bill protects those rights, while also allowing those entering and exiting our center a safe path to do so.”
Planned Parenthood has provided supportive health care in the region since 1932 and is also required to provide women information about other options under state law, noted Alderman Shane Cohn, 25th Ward, who has served on the board at Planned Parenthood.
Violating the ordinance, or blocking entry or exit from a facility such as the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, would be punishable by up to $500 in fines or up to 90 days in jail.