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Philadelphia senator's bill restricts anti-abortion protesters

| Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, 11:33 p.m.

A Philadelphia lawmaker's bill would bring the rest of the state in line with a Pittsburgh law restricting anti-abortion protests.

The legislation would require protesters to stay at least 15 feet from entrances to abortion clinics, said its sponsor, Democratic state Sen. Larry Farnese, who introduced it on Wednesday. Spokesmen for Republicans who control the House, Senate and governor's office said leaders will consider the legislation once they see it.

Erik Arneson, a top aide to Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, said he hadn't discussed the bill with Senate leaders, but he does not “have any reason to expect this legislation would win majority support in either chamber of the General Assembly,” both of which Republicans control.

Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, is focused on legislation privatizing the state's liquor store system and preventing child abuse, but he will “obviously take a look” at the Senate bill if it comes to the House, said spokesman Steve Miskin. A similar House bill won't pass, he predicted.

Pennsylvania has long been at the forefront of abortion politics. Planned Parenthood's 1989 suit against abortion restrictions signed into law by former Gov. Bob Casey became a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision. Jeanne Clark, former director of an East Liberty abortion clinic, told the Tribune-Review in January that protesters once drove a car up to the front doors of the clinic and chained themselves to its undercarriage.

Farnese said he encountered “intimidation and harassment” from anti-abortion protesters when he used to volunteer to escort women from their cars into a Philadelphia abortion clinic.

“We had folks who would come up and ... get in your face, take tiny plastic babies and shove them in (the woman's) face, yell at them, pray over them. For me it was unsettling and I can't imagine what it was like for these women,” Farnese said. “The other side of this is that as an attorney, I certainly believe in the First Amendment. I believe there has to be a balance.”

Pittsburgh's 2005 law helped define that balance. It required a 15-foot buffer zone around clinics and an 8-foot “bubble” around people entering clinics. A three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, ruled in 2009 that the city could enact either of those restrictions, but not both.

The city chose the 15-foot buffer, said Kim Evert, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania. Before the buffer, protesters blocked clinic entrances and closed in on people who approached the facilities' doors, including those who weren't clients, Evert said. Often, a parent or boyfriend, or the woman herself, pushed the protester out of the way to get into the Downtown building on the 900 block of Liberty Avenue, Evert said.

“People would get scared or agitated. There was pushing and shoving,” Evert said. The buffer “has been incredibly valuable for us.”

These days, protesters rarely violate the buffer, Evert said.

Pittsburgh's law provides for a fine of at least $50 for someone who violates the buffer zone once, with subsequent offenses raising the fine to $300 or more, according to the city code. Farnese's bill would impose a fine of at least $100 for the first offense, and up to 90 days in jail for the third offense.

“We have had good support from police in the city, as far as good enforcement,” Evert said.

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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