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Anti-Abortion Protesters in Chicago Could Face Tougher Laws

Anti-abortion protesters could soon be subject to new rules that would require them to keep their distance from women outside Chicago abortion clinics. But with activists as well as a civil liberties group opposed to the measure, supporters of the proposal may run into a fight next week when the issue is expected to come before the City Council.

The ordinance, which three members of the Chicago City Council Committee on Human Relations unanimously approved Wednesday, would revise the city’s disorderly conduct law to place a “safe zone” around any person standing within 50 feet of a hospital or clinic entrance.

Under the proposed law, a protester would not be allowed to come within eight feet of a person to distribute pamphlets, preach or educate, and could not block anyone from entering or exiting the building. Protesters violating the “safe zone” would potentially face misdemeanor charges and a $500 fine.

Committee members say the measure would allow protesters to approach a person within 50 feet of the building if that person consents. But anti-abortion activists who testified Wednesday say the law is too confusing and would prevent them from exercising their constitutional right to free speech.

“It leaves us so vulnerable that we literally cannot be out there,” said Lynn Benz, who has “counseled” women outside abortion clinics for the past nine years. “You are shutting us out completely.”

Fellow protester Catherine Mieding, who spends her Saturdays outside a clinic on the West Side, agreed.

“You cannot counsel a girl at 50 feet,” Mieding said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois also spoke against the ordinance Wednesday, but took a softer stance. Executive Director Colleen Connell said her organization does not object to the portion of the law about impeding access to clinics, but called the idea of an 8-foot bubble “inappropriately restrictive.”

Anti-abortion protesters did not learn of the proposed ordinance until a reporter contacted them Tuesday evening, said Ann Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, a national group based in Chicago.

League leaders plan to mobilize the group’s thousands of members before the ordinance comes before the full City Council on Oct. 7, Scheidler said.

The federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994 already protects people trying to enter abortion clinics. But local police have no authority to enforce a federal law, so a local ordinance is necessary, said Ald. Vi Daley (43rd), who introduced the proposal.

Daley said she has grown concerned about increasingly aggressive protesters at a Planned Parenthood clinic located within her ward at 1200 N. LaSalle Drive.

“Girls that are going to this facility could be going there for a physical, they could be going for a pap smear,” Daley said. “We want to make sure that these young girls and these people can get into the facility without having to be approached.”

Groups of protesters at that clinic have become “larger and more vicious” in recent months, said Planned Parenthood spokeswomen Beth Kanter. Some wear white doctor’s jackets or vests nearly identical to those worn by clinic volunteers to confuse and gain access to patients, she said.

Activity has been especially strong since Sept. 23, Kanter said, when the nationwide anti-abortion campaign “40 Days for Life” began. During the campaign, protesters spend 40 straight days keeping vigil outside of clinics across the country.

“Our clients should be able to receive the reproductive health care they need without putting their health and the health of our staff and volunteers at risk,” Kanter said.

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