Louisville Metro Council Passes Safety Zone Ordinance to Protect Against Anti-Abortion Protesters

Last week in Kentucky, by a vote of 14–11, the Louisville metro council passed a safety zone ordinance to create a buffer zone outside of health care clinics, including the EMW Women’s Surgical Center—which is one of only two abortion clinics in the state and has been the target of ongoing anti-abortion protests.

The new measure provides a 10-foot area in front of the entrance to the health care facility where people are not allowed to gather, providing space for patients and providers to enter and exit without being harassed by anti-abortion protesters.

duVergne Gaines, director of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project, welcomed the provision in light of the unprecedented level of harassment she’s witnessed outside EMW Women’s Surgical Center:

“For more than thirty years, the National Clinic Access Project has worked with reproductive health care providers, local, state and federal elected officials, community organizations, and law enforcement to protect clinics, providers, staff and patients from anti-abortion harassment and violence, while respecting the rights of those who lawfully choose to protest against abortion. We also periodically publish national clinic violence surveys. I have traveled to and worked in communities across the country, including many cities in the South. In my opinion, EMW Women’s Surgical Center patients, staff, volunteers and Louisville’s downtown community experience some of the most egregious anti-abortion harassment, intimidation and interference in the country,”

EMW Women’s Surgical Center was Kentucky’s sole abortion clinic for nearly a decade and has experienced an onslaught of protests and harassment that have created a fearful environment for both patients and providers at the clinic. Some of the more distressing incidents include physical assaults, violence, bomb threats and a clinic blockade in 2017 that resulted in a federal judge creating a temporary safety zone that was enforced by U.S. marshals.

“Medically speaking, and first and foremost, our patients are psychologically damaged by the blocking, harassment, taunts and stalking for over a block when they are trying to enter our office,” said Dr. Ernest Marshall, founder of the EMW Women’s Surgical Center. “This is extremely stressful and they express they are afraid on a public sidewalk.”

Tamarra Wieder, Kentucky state director for Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, called the safety zone ordinance “a simple and long overdue step toward ensuring patient protection. Without safety zones, patients are subjected unnecessarily to harassment, stigmatization, and shame for seeking basic health care services, including abortion.”

The metro council decision took on new meaning in the midst of Monday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization out of neighboring Mississippi—a direct challenge to the court’s precedents in Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood that has abortion advocates worried for the future of Roe.

“Our public health is being politicized to score political points and patients continue to pay the price,” said Wieder. “This small space will provide safer access to health care facilities and help mitigate the risk of COVID-19 exposure. Public safety and increasing access to health care should be a priority for all community leaders, especially during a pandemic. We hope to see other cities across our commonwealth follow Louisville’s lead. Abortion is a legal right in Kentucky and we must do everything we can to protect patient access to it and other essential health care.”

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Corinne Long is the Communications Associate at the Feminist Majority Foundation. A lifelong women’s rights activist, Corinne worked at Emily’s List and the Democratic National Women’s Club before joining FMF. She holds a B.A. in Communication from Trinity Washington University. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her cat, Lorelei.