With lack of votes, St. Louis Board of Aldermen take step back in passing buffer zone bill

The bill that would create a buffer zone between protesters and healthcare facilities, including Planned Parenthood, did not get a vote for final passage as expected by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen on Friday.

Although the board perfected Board Bill 34 by a slim vote of 15-13 at last week’s meeting, some yes votes, including Alderman Shane Cohn, 25th Ward, and Alderman Samuel Moore, 4th Ward, were absent Friday, prompting bill sponsor Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia, 6th Ward, to move the buffer zone bill back to the informal calendar.

Supporters of the bill appeared to have the votes after last week’s meeting, but with such a narrow margin it was clear they needed all present in order to ensure they get the necessary 15 votes for final passage.

If passed, the new law 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 board is expected to have a final vote on March 9.

While the bill only refers to healthcare facilities, its 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, according to Ingrassia.

She said last week 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 NARAL 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 Alderwoman 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.

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.

Alderwoman Sarah Martin, 11th Ward, said the bill is less about protesting and more about “sidewalk counselors” who often mislead prospective patients.

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.

In response to the passage last week, 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 Cohn, 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.

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