Anti-abortion groups want to get closer to women, sue Chicago over "bubble zone" law

AP

Anti-abortion protesters in Chicago would like to get so much closer to clinic patrons than municipal law allows them to get, so they're suing the city with a little help from a "religious liberty" legal outfit, Jezebel reported.

Protesters, represented by the Thomas More Society, argue they should be allowed to get close enough to press anti-abortion literature on people visiting healthcare centers. According to the Chicago Tribune, they are upset because the city — and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld — won't let them "reach out," literally, "to women seeking abortions." 

Or, at least, not as far as the protesters would like: Chicago currently has a "bubble zone" law that forces protesters — or "sidewalk counselors," as they call themselves — to stay eight feet away from people going into abortion-providing clinics, unless those people give them the OK to approach. 

Woman walks past protest signs on way into Mississippi clinic.Source: Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Woman walks past protest signs on way into Mississippi clinic.  Rogelio V. Solis/AP

"The precious right of free speech — so central to our democracy — is being denied to these individuals on the basis of their pro-life beliefs," said Thomas Olp, senior counsel at the Thomas More Society, according to the Tribune. "Pro-life advocates are being singled out, and their constitutional protections are being trampled."

The thing about free speech, though, is that it only protects you from the federal government's retribution for the things that you say. But the suit also alleged that police are spotty in their enforcement of the law, allowing volunteers to shepherd women into the clinics while "counselors" must remain eight feet away. 

"A bubble zone of eight feet enables staff and patients to go in and out of health centers without being swarmed by protestors," Linda Diamond Shapiro, interim CEO of Planned Parenthood of Illinois, said in an emailed statement. "This small distance can make an enormous difference in keeping entrances accessible and reducing aggressive confrontations."

The anti-abortion protesters believe their case has precedent: The Thomas More Society cited a 2007 Massachusetts law that prohibited people from standing within 35 feet of an abortion clinic. In 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down that law, but Chicago's isn't quite comparable — the city allows protesters to congregate within 50 feet of a clinic's doors, they just need to stay eight feet away from people going in. 

Man follows woman down street in Washington, D.C., to give her anti-abortion literature.Source: Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Man follows woman down street in Washington, D.C., to give her anti-abortion literature.  Jacquelyn Martin/AP

It's also worth noting that visitors to health care centers that provide abortions aren't necessarily there to receive abortions. Maybe they're going in for a pap smear and don't need an anti-abortion pamphlet. Maybe they're going in for an abortion and still don't need an anti-abortion pamphlet.

"[The protesters are] standing right next to the door and bombarding patients who are coming and going out of the health center," a Planned Parenthood spokesperson told the Tribune. "They don't know what the patient is doing here, they could be coming here for any service. And they have the right to get those services, whatever they may be."

August 26, 2016, 2:00 p.m.: This post has been updated.