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“Bubble Ordinance” Causing Some Anti-Abortion Protesters to Pray and Stand Still

Corrina Gura still goes out to the Near North Planned Parenthood on Saturday mornings, bundled up and armed with stacks of leaflets. But since the city’s “bubble ordinance” took effect last month, the anti-abortion activist says those protests are marred by confusion and anxiety.

These days, protesters’ every move is captured on film by their own videographer – a safeguard, they say, against confused police officers and clinic workers who continue to misinterpret the new ordinance. And, afraid to break the law by stepping too close to people entering the clinic, Gura said she is spending more time standing still.

“We’ve done more just praying in the last few weeks, instead of trying to counsel,” said Gura, an activist with the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League. “It is pretty difficult.”

The new law places an eight-foot “safe zone” around people within 50 feet of a clinic entrance. Anti-abortion protesters who “knowingly approach” a person to distribute pamphlets, preach or educate without his or her consent now face a $500 fine.

Gura said she was unaware of any protesters who had been fined.

Police spokesmen for District 16 and 18 – which police the Albany Medical-Surgical Center, located at 5086 N. Elston Ave., and Planned Parenthood, 1200 N. LaSalle Drive – could not immediately confirm whether any fines had been issued. Both said they were unaware of any confusion over the law.

The Chicago City Council passed the “bubble ordinance” in October after a 40-day, nationwide anti-abortion protest sparked concerns over safety outside the Near North facility.

During the “40 Days for Life” campaign, protests became “larger and more vicious,” Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Beth Kanter told a city council committee in October, and protesters used deceptive tactics, like wearing white lab coats, to confuse women entering the clinic.

Since the “bubble ordinance” took effect on Nov. 18, the law’s wording – particularly its use of the word “approach” – has been a source of confusion, said John Jansen, a spokesman for the Pro-Life Action League.

“What exactly does ‘approach’ mean?” Jansen said. “If you’re standing still and offering them literature, are you approaching them? It’s very vague.”

Protesters outside the Planned Parenthood facility have had run-ins with police over the definition of the word, Jansen said; one was videotaped and is posted on YouTube. And police officers outside the Albany clinic have mistakenly told protesters the law prohibits them from standing anywhere within 50 feet of the clinic door, he said.

“That’s not what the law says,” Jansen said. “There’s some confusion there.”

Kathy Fitch, office manager for the Albany clinic, said police were called about that incident because protesters were blocking the entrance to the facility – not because they were violating the bubble ordinance.

Fitch agreed that the law is “vague,” adding that it has not proven very helpful at her clinic because of the placement of their entrance.

Kanter said it is too early to tell if the law is effective at Planned Parenthood’s facility, but that she is “optimistic that the law is going to help us protect the safety of our patients.”

Peter Breen, executive director of the Thomas More Society, a pro-life law firm in Chicago, has said he plans to file a lawsuit against the city. Breen did not respond for comment by press time.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) said the ordinance was modeled after a Colorado law. The legality of that law was challenged, but was inevitably upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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