Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Abortion foes challenge Harrisburg protest buffer in court

Abortion opponents seek an injunction against a Harrisburg city ordinance, saying it limits their ability to offer anti-abortion literature and counseling to women at the 2nd St. Planned Parenthood.

Becky Biter says that the Holy Spirit “lit a fire in her soul” at a religious retreat in 2014, and she has advocated for the end of legal abortion ever since.

Now, Biter and another abortion opponent are taking legal action against Harrisburg for allegedly limiting their free speech rights. They seek an injunction against the city’s “buffer ordinance,” which, since 2012, has outlawed people from protesting, picketing or congregating within 20 feet of health clinic entrances.

Mayor Eric Papenfuse said he stands by the ordinance as a fair protection of both free speech and the right to medical care. The plaintiffs claim that it limits their ability to engage in a form of advocacy called “sidewalk counseling” outside of the 2nd Street Planned Parenthood. That facility is currently the only abortion provider in Harrisburg.

Both sides made their cases yesterday and today before the Hon. Sylvia Rambo, U.S. District Court judge for the Middle District of Pennsylvania at the federal courthouse on Market Street. Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based advocacy group, represented Biter, of Fayetville, and co-plaintiff Colleen Riley, of Lebanon pro bono (at no cost.)

The original injunction also listed Lancaster resident Rosalie Gross as a plaintiff. She was dropped from the case after video footage showed her heckling Planned Parenthood patients, Papenfuse said.

The trial concluded this afternoon with testimony from both remaining plaintiffs. Biter recounted how she was driven to an abortion clinic at age 15 by an abusive boyfriend, who forced her to terminate her unplanned pregnancy.

She said her regret over the abortion led to years of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and she claimed that she now wants to spare other women from the same distress.

Claims about the psychological harms of abortion have proliferated since the Supreme Court heard Roe v. Wade in 1973. A peer-reviewed paper published in the American Psychological Journal in 2009, which included a comprehensive review of extant literature on the topic, found that the majority of women who terminate pregnancies do not experience mental health problems.

“Although we conclude that most adult women do not have mental health problems following an abortion of an unwanted pregnancy, we do not mean to imply that no women experience such problems. Some women do,” the researchers wrote.

But they said that those mental health problems could stem from ambivalence toward the abortion or fear of social stigmatization, as well as co-occurring conditions such as unhealthy relationships or economic insecurity.

Pro-life advocates nonetheless point to these perceived psychological harms to dissuade women from seeking abortions. Biter and Riley said that offering “sidewalk counseling” outside of abortion clinics helps them protect women from post-abortion distress.

Before the court, both women insisted that sidewalk counseling is different from protesting. A Liberty Counsel attorney objected when Frank Lavery, a lawyer representing the city, referred to them as “protesters.” Biter and Riley said that they never heckle patrons, raise their voices, or display posters with graphic images.

Instead, they claimed they politely approach women as they walk towards abortion clinics to offer them prayer and literature. Their methods are less effective, they said, when they cannot enter the 20-foot buffer zone near the Planned Parenthood entrance.

“Our goal is to show women they’re not alone,” Biter said on the stand. “The best way is to get close to a woman, hug her, lead her away from the abortion facility, and sit her down in a safe place to show her someone cares.”

During cross examination, Lavery pointed that even though the plaintiffs might be peaceful activists, voiding the buffer ordinance would also empower more confrontational protesters.

If Rambo rules in favor of the plaintiffs, she will issue a preliminary injunction against the city’s ordinance, which would void it during an inevitable appeals process. The defense could then file a motion to make the injunction permanent.

The injunction against Harrisburg was filed in March 2016. City Solicitor Neil Grover estimates that the city has spent more than $60,000 litigating the case since then, mostly on outside counsel.

But there’s even more at stake. If the plaintiffs prevail, Harrisburg will have to reimburse Liberty Counsel for their legal fees in accordance with a Civil Rights Act statute.

Both sides will rest until the court stenographer completes the 500-page transcript of the proceedings. Grover said that could take until January.

After attorneys receive the transcript, they will have 20 days to review it and submit final arguments to Rambo. The judge has no time constraint on her final ruling.

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