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Illinois abortion providers call for statewide protections against harassment at clinics

An anti-abortion sign sits outside the Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri’s clinic on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, in Fairview Heights. The center is one of two places a person can receive abortion care in the Metro East.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
An anti-abortion sign sits outside the Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri’s clinic in August 2022 in Fairview Heights. Providers in the Metro East say they want state laws that would protect them from protesters who harass or intimidate patients and workers.

Updated at 5:40 p.m. Feb. 6 with comments from Coalition Life

Citing an increase in harassment and intimidation from anti-abortion protesters, abortion providers in Illinois on Tuesday implored state legislators to pass laws to protect clinics and their workers.

Abortion providers said such incidents have increased in the state since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022 overturned Roe v. Wade, which protected access to abortion nationwide. As Missouri and other states quickly outlawed the procedure following the decision, protests have increased at clinics in states that protect abortion access, speakers said during a roundtable discussion in Springfield, Illinois.

“The patchwork solutions of local ordinances and individual security is just not sustainable,” said Michele Landeau, chief operating officer of the Hope Clinic in Granite City. “It shouldn’t matter what city you’re in or which police respond to the call — we need a statewide solution.”

State Rep. Mary Beth Canty of Arlington Heights and state Sen. Adriane Johnson of Buffalo Grove, both Democrats, attended the roundtable along with Landeau, Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri President Yamelsie Rodriguez and Jennifer Welch, president of Planned Parenthood Illinois Action. People who escort patients into the clinics also attended.

According to the National Abortion Federation, which advocates for abortion rights, incidences of stalking, death threats and invasions at clinics increased between 2021 and 2022, when the Supreme Court overturned the landmark decision. Obstruction — in which protesters try to block patients from getting to a clinic — has increased in states that offer abortion protections, the report said.

Picketing was by far the most common anti-abortion protest activity, according to the group’s report, published in May 2023. Although picketing decreased slightly throughout the nation, it increased 21% in states that offered protections. Stalking, obstructions and bomb threats increased in protected states.

Clinic escorts who help patients navigate through clinic parking lots described protesters jeering at and targeting patients.

“Patients get called out by some article of clothing,” said Carolyn Kopel, a clinic escort from Springfield. “For example, ‘You in the red sweatshirt! You in the yellow, with the rainbow stickers on your bumper!’ They feel very personally identified and attacked in a very personal way.”

“It can be very frustrating when they hear those folks call out to them and say very negative things,” said Patti Pace-Halprin, another clinic escort. “It can be very worrisome to them and fearful, and makes them very frightened.”

Clinic escorts should not be necessary at health centers, said Planned Parenthood officials. The federal FACE Act prohibits protesters from making physical threats and obstructing access to abortion clinics. Other local governments have enacted laws that create buffer zones between protesters and patients.

In Chicago and Carbondale, “bubble laws” prohibit protesters from approaching patients as they walk to clinics. The Thomas More Society is suing the City of Carbondale on behalf of the anti-abortion group Coalition Life, with the hope of overturning the law.

Representatives from the group have said the law is unconstitutional and was made despite there being no evidence of illegal activity around clinics.

“What we have is the federal constitution, which clearly outlines the public’s rights and the freedom to handbill, the freedom to have both religious rights and freedom of speech,” said Coalition Life Founder and Executive Director Brian Westbrook. “The federal documents have already clearly articulated we have a right to be there.”

He said he has not seen violence from anti-abortion activists in downstate Illinois and that such a statewide law would violate protesters’ freedom of expression.

“I think it’s really important to realize the First Amendment to free speech doesn’t stop simply by the methodology that’s being used to communicate a certain message,” Westbrook said.

Kansas, Wisconsin and other states have enacted laws similar to the federal FACE law that prohibit blocking the entrance to abortion clinics, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

“The security of our patients and our staff is in the forefront of our mind every single day,” Landeau said. “We're always paying attention and making sure everyone can get the health care they need regardless of how far they need to travel.”

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.