By David Brand
A federal court ruled Saturday that anti-abortion activists are free to continue to follow and preach at patients as they approach a Jamaica health clinic.
For six years, a group of anti-abortion activists has surrounded the entrance to Choices Women’s Medical Center in Jamaica, held signs that they say show the remains of aborted fetuses and attempted to to discourage the women from entering the clinic— though the health clinic provides various services in addition to abortion.
In 2017, former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a lawsuit stating that 13 regular protesters violated federal, state and city laws by “harassing” the women and getting too close to them as they walked toward the clinic. The attorney general’s lawsuit — continued by current Attorney General Barbara Underwood after Schneiderman resigned—asked a judge from the Federal District Court for the Eastern District to issue a preliminary injunction against the protestors and to establish a 16-foot buffer zone around the clinic.
Judge Carol Bagley Amon said the attorney general’s office “failed to show” that any of the 13 defendants “had the intent to harass, annoy, or alarm” patients or escorts. The anti-abortion activists were within their First Amendment rights to protest outside the health center, she said..
“The interactions on the sidewalk outside Choices were generally quite short, and there is no credible evidence that any protester disregarded repeated requests to be left alone over an extended period or changed his or her tone or message in response to requests to be left alone in a way that suggested an intent to harass, annoy, or alarm,” Amon wrote in the decision.
According to the lawsuit “problematic protestors” carry large signs, “yell and preach very loudly,” trail patients, “walk slowly in front of patients,” “bump and shove escorts and patients,” block them from leaving their cars and film or photograph them., Amon said much of the testimony by clinic escorts contradicted video evidence and exaggerated the level of intimidation, however.
Amon did include a “word of caution” in her decision.
“This decision should not embolden the defendants to engage in more aggressive conduct,” Amon wrote. “In a few instances noted, several of the defendants’ actions came close to crossing the line from activity protected by the First Amendment to conduct prohibited by” state law.
Several local lawmakers and women’s rights advocates disagreed with the decision and said would indeed embolden anti-abortion activists in New York and nationwide.
“This decision sets a dangerous precedent,” New York City Public Advocate Letitia James said in a statement. “It is unconscionable that any person would be subjected to harassment, threats, and even physical violence for simply seeking or providing medical care — and that our courts would condone this behavior. Now, more than ever, we must establish laws in our state that protect women’s reproductive rights and ensure this type of behavior is never tolerated.”
Merle Hoffman, founder and president of Choices, said the decision ignores the “unbearable atmosphere of hate and chaos deliberately created by these anti-choice zealots.” She called on Underwood to appeal the decision.
“The court’s decision denying our patients and staff protection from the harassment and intimidation they currently experience on a weekly basis is inexplicable, and its utter disregard of their testimony is a shocking repudiation of their lived experiences,” Hoffman said in a statement. “[T]his decision will surely embolden those who already harass and threaten women exercising their constitutional right to safe and legal abortion services.”