As a reproductive rights movement, it can be easy to only focus on how access to abortion is limited but we need to celebrate and recognize our wins. I spoke with Amanda Patton, owner of ProChoiceCats.com and former patient advocate at Founder’s Women’s Health Center, to highlight a huge win for clinic safety in Columbus Ohio.
Q: So, could you tell me a little bit about yourself?
A: I received my Bachelor of Arts in Communication from the University of Toledo in 2010, and moved to Columbus immediately afterwards to begin working as a Legislative Fellow for the Ohio Legislative Service Commission. I was assigned to work within the offices of four Senate Republicans and that was when I learned so much about the conservative strategy to limit abortion access. After 6 months, I was so appalled by the Republican strategy that I left the fellowship early. It took me a few years to get up the courage to “come out” as pro-choice… I was afraid of what people would think of me when they found out that I supported abortion. In 2014, a friend began sending me photos of anti-choice protesters who were harassing women outside of a Toledo abortion clinic. This galvanized me to get involved in the pro-choice movement, regardless of what others would think about me. I began volunteering at Founder’s Women’s Health Center, the last independent abortion provider in Columbus. My friends and I would walk patients from their cars to the front door of the clinic to help them feel safe in the face of the aggressive anti-choice protesters. After a few months, I quit my job in the tech industry and began working inside of Founder’s as a patient advocate.
Q: Tell me how this all got started with the Clinic Protection Ordinance? What inspired you or made you want to really advocate for this ordinance and what role did you play in making sure this ordinance was taken seriously?
A: The aggressive tactics of the protesters outside of Founder’s quickly convinced me that some sort of buffer zone around the clinic was necessary to provide protection to patients, volunteers, and staff. I organized the Patient Escort Program at Founder’s in 2014 and 2015, so even though I was working inside of the clinic, I would still hear stories from patients and the volunteers would show me photos and videos of the protesters following, grabbing, and harassing anyone nearby the clinic. There are so many examples of the harassment patients and volunteers would endure… I wrote about many of these examples on the clinic’s blog, FoundersWHC.com/blog .
I’ve had several patients tell me that protesters followed them so aggressively that they had to literally run away from these protesters. One patient gave us a written statement that said a protester stepped in front of her path and tried to hand her a pamphlet. The patient declined and tried to walk away, but the protester grabbed her arm. This scared the patient so much that she took off running, but before she could get away, the protestor yanked her jacket sleeve. The patient retreated to her car, and at that point, the protesters approached her car and continued to harass her. When the clinic asked her if she would like to press charges with the police, she declined because she did not want anyone knowing that she was at an abortion clinic.
I understood her reasoning, especially because I’ve seen how ineffective it is to file a police report when protesters get aggressive. For example, one of my volunteers was physically shoved by a protester and it upset my volunteer so much that she called the police. But by the time the police arrived, the protester had already left and no further action was taken by the police to deal with this protester. There was only one time that I witnessed a Columbus police officer issue a citation to a protester outside of Founder’s and it was for public urination. Later, that police officer told me that her supervisor instructed her to stop writing citations to protesters outside of the clinic for fear that the city might get slapped with a lawsuit.
Over time, it became clear that the current laws are not enough to hold these aggressive protesters accountable for their actions. In March 2016, I met with Columbus City Council Member Elizabeth Brown and asked her if she would introduce a clinic protection ordinance. She promised to have the city attorneys look into this matter. I didn’t hear anything for a little while, and I honestly thought that it had been forgotten about. I was used to dealing with the state legislature where they will probably never pass any laws to protect clinics. But a few weeks later, Ms. Brown’s staff contacted me to say that the proposed local ordinance would be going forward. Her staff worked with NARAL Pro Choice Ohio and Planned Parenthood to draft language that was constitutional. The end result was an ordinance that increased the penalty for committing disorderly conduct within 15 feet of a reproductive health clinic.
My friends, co-workers, and volunteers came together to rally support for this ordinance. Many of us spoke at the public hearing and faced down the very anti-choice protesters who harassed us and our patients. I cried at this hearing because listening to the people I love talk about the abuse and harassment from the protesters was like re-living the trauma all over again.
Q: In your opinion, how will this ordinance help the reproductive health clinics in the city of Columbus?
A: This ordinance important because it shows that Columbus City Council takes the harassment of patients and staff seriously, it gives our police the tools they need to address harassment outside of clinics and it increases the penalty for disorderly conduct within 15 feet of a reproductive healthcare facility. My hope is that the protesters will dial down their behavior so that they do not violate this new ordinance. If that actually happens, hopefully patients and staff will begin to feel safer as they are walking into the clinic. If protesters cross the line, hopefully Columbus police will now have an incentive to take their actions seriously and hold them accountable.
Q: What do you think other cities can take or learn from this new ordinance?
A: I think that pursuing clinic protection laws on a local level (instead of state level) can increase your chances for getting it to successfully pass. It is my hope that every major Ohio city with an abortion clinic will pass similar ordinances as a sign of solidarity for the patients, staff, and volunteers who must endure the harassment of protesters every day.
Q: If there is one message you want to get across to people about this ordinance and clinic protection what would it be?
A: Many protesters and folks from the ACLU were concerned that this ordinance would infringe on the first amendment right to free speech, but I completely disagree. This is NOT a full blown “buffer zone” in which the protesters cannot be within 15 feet of the clinic. In reality, the protesters can STILL continue to stand on the sidewalk outside of the clinic with their gory signs while passing out literature and yelling at people to their hearts’ content. This local ordinance will only penalize protesters who grab, shove, or block patients, staff, and volunteers within 15 feet of the clinic. So if these protesters are as “peaceful” as they claim to be, this law should not even be of concern to them.
The ordinance makes it a first-degree misdemeanor for anyone to block or obstruct a person from entering or exiting a reproductive health-care facility. Protesters cannot grab or offer unwanted touches, and the ordinance prohibits anyone from engaging in repeated acts that place a person in reasonable fear or physical harm. Violation of this ordinance carries a penalty of up to 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Any protester who feels like this infringes on their first amendment right clearly does not understand the difference between protest speech, hate speech, and actions that violate a person’s bodily autonomy. Of course it should be illegal to grab or touch someone who doesn’t want to talk to you. Your right to protest does not guarantee you the right to do whatever you want to the other people around you.
As Amanda claimed the new Columbus city ordinance does not infringe upon the first amendment rights of peaceful protesters, it only prevents protesters from following, physically touching and harassing any staff, volunteer or patient who would be entering or exiting the clinic premises. At the end of the day, the individuals who claim this new Columbus city ordinance presents a threat to them know that this is not because it violates their first amendment rights- but because it prevents the protesters from terrorizing the individuals utilizing the facility for its intended purposes. The violent protesters who built their self-worth on petrifying others, who have disguised their bigotry as religious freedom protected under their constitutional rights will no longer be legally permitted to violate the wellbeing of others. We thank City Council Member Elizabeth Brown, and her colleagues for their time and extensive efforts to ensure that the clinics in Columbus city would be protected under the law. In a time where reproductive access is under constant attack, it’s time we recognize that this movement is not one that was over after Roe vs. Wade. This movement will continue with every experience and we will continue to fight until reproductive justice is a freedom accessible for every person, in every city, from every demographic, no matter the situation.