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Committee approves buffer zone around St. Louis Planned Parenthood facility

A volunteer with Coalition for Life St. Louis protests outside Planned Parenthood on Forest Park Avenue.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
A committee of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen has approved legislation that would keep protesters at least 8 feet from the driveway at Planned Parenthood in St. Louis.

Protesters trying to speak to patients getting care at Planned Parenthood’s clinic in the Central West End would have to do so from farther away under a bill approved Wednesday by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen’s public safety committee.

Abortion rights advocates, including NARAL Missouri and Planned Parenthood, have been trying to pass a so-called buffer zone for nearly 14 months. The full board could take its first vote on the legislation next week.

The bill as currently written says no one “shall knowingly enter, remain on, or create any obstruction within the driveway of a health care facility or within a public way or sidewalk within 8 feet of any portion of such facility’s driveway during the facility’s posted business hours.” The intent, said Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia, D-6th Ward, is to ensure that patients at the clinic, and other facilities like hospitals, feel safe when trying to get care.

“In 2016, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department received 66 calls for service” at the Planned Parenthood location, and 73 calls last year, said Ingrassia, who is the measure’s lead sponsor. “A large percent of these calls were for impeding the flow of traffic and peace disturbances. Unfortunately, the police department has testified that the current laws we have in place are not able to address these concerns.”

Anti-abortion advocates said the buffer zone would chill their right to free speech.

“The eight feet starts at the edge of the driveway. And then you add the size of the driveway, that’s another 12 feet to the middle. So you’re at least 20 feet away,” said Brian Westbrook, the executive director of the Coalition for Life in St. Louis. “I cannot properly hand them a piece of information that offers free services to them from 20 feet away.”

Westbrook said members of the coalition would be contacting as many aldermen as possible before a vote on the measure. If it ends up passing, he said, a legal challenge is possible.

“Courts have ruled both ways,” Westbrook said. “McCullenvs. Coakley, in Massachusetts, is the most recent case and they struck down a buffer zone in Massachusetts. The Colorado Supreme Court decision they are referencing is actually the oldest of all the rulings.”

The Massachusetts law set a 35-foot buffer zone around a clinic there. Colorado’s establishes a floating 8-foot buffer zone around medical workers and patients who are within 100 feet of the clinic.

Wednesday’s committee vote was 5-2. One committee member did not vote, and two other members were absent. Final approval at the board requires 15 votes.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.