Gwen Finnegan (seated, center) is director of Vigil for Life in Madison and spoke against the ordinance at the Public Safety Review Committee hearing.
When Wendi Kent got pregnant at age 13, she turned to Planned Parenthood for prenatal care. But after a few months, she scraped together some money to go to another clinic so she could avoid the harassment she faced outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Austin, Texas, where she lived at the time.
"I was harassed all three or four times that I went there for prenatal care,” says Kent, president of the Madison chapter of the National Organization for Women. "It very much made me feel like I didn't want to go back."
Kent shared her experiences Tuesday night with the city's Public Safety Review Committee before it voted unanimously to approve an ordinance that creates a buffer zone at the entrance of health care clinics, including abortion providers.
The ordinance would create a protective zone within 160 feet of health clinics to allow patients to enter and leave without obstruction. The ordinance would also prevent individuals within that zone from "actively approaching, to within eight feet, people intending to use the health clinic's service in order to engage in oral protest, education, counseling, passing of leaflets or handbills, or displaying signs to the person."
A person who violates the ordinance would be subject to a $300 fine for a first offense; $500 for a second offense and $750 for a third.
Gwen Finnegan, director of Vigil for Life, was one of two people who spoke at the committee meeting in opposition to the ordinance. Five spoke in support.
Citing the massive protests against Gov. Scott Walker's move to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees in 2011, Finnegan said Madison has always cherished the right to free speech and assembly.
"The buffer zone gag rule is clearly discriminatory against pro-life people," Finnegan said.
But Subeck said because the ordinance protects an area around an individual rather than the entire clinic, it balances patient protection with the right of free speech.
"The protestors can still be there, they can still hold signs they can still protest peacefully," Subeck said. "I am an ardent supporter of free speech and do not want to limit people's ability to express themselves."
The 160-foot zone is based on the geography of Madison clinics, affording individuals protection from bus stops to the doors of facilities, said Subeck.
The Board of Health for Madison and Dane County will review the ordinance Thursday. Subeck says it could return to the Common Council for a vote as early as Feb. 25. With 14 co-sponsors in the Council, Subeck says passage is likely.
Kent is hopeful of quick approval: "Any bill that proposes that we make a health care facility a more comfortable place for people to approach, I don't see how anybody could argue with that."