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Abortion facility access law debate draws hundreds to Toledo council chambers

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    Greater Toledo Right to Life executive director Ed Sitter testifies during a Toledo City Council Public Safety & Criminal Justice Reform Committee hearing on an ordinance to impede access to health care facilities in Toledo.

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    Council president Steven Steel explains an ordinance to impede access to health care facilities during a Toledo City Council Public Safety & Criminal Justice Reform Committee hearing at the Government Center.

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    David Beckwith interrupts a Toledo City Council Public Safety & Criminal Justice Reform Committee hearing on an ordinance to impede access to health care facilities in Toledo. He was escorted out by police.

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    Councilman Rob Ludeman explains his reasoning for not supporting an ordinance to impede access to health care facilities during a Toledo City Council Public Safety & Criminal Justice Reform Committee hearing at the Government Center.

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    Councilman Matt Cherry speaks for unions at a Toledo City Council Public Safety & Criminal Justice Reform Committee hearing on an ordinance to impede access to health care facilities in Toledo. He said a collection of unioins are against the ordinance.

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    Many of those who support the law wore red shirts that stated "I support Capital Care," referring to the Capital Care Network abortion clinic at 1160 West Sylvania Ave.

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Two hundred people on both sides of the abortion issue crammed into Toledo City Council chambers Wednesday for a meeting regarding a proposed law that would make it a misdemeanor to impede access to health care facilities — including the city’s only abortion clinic.

Councilman Kurt Young, chairman of council's criminal justice committee, said debate on abortion would not be allowed.

"We are not going to have a debate on that today," Mr. Young said.

Instead, he said debate would be limited to the proposed controversial law, which would make it a first-degree misdemeanor to “physically obstruct or block another person from entering into or exiting from the premises of a health care facility or reproductive health care facility by physically striking, shoving, restraining, grabbing, or otherwise subjecting the person to unwanted physical contact, or attempt or threaten to do the same.”

The law would set up 20-foot buffer zones where such conduct or acts would be prohibited, the proposed law states.

Abortion rights advocates support the law. Anti-abortion advocates claim it will restrict free speech and that it duplicates existing law.

Many of those who support the law wore red shirts that stated "I support Capital Care," referring to the Capital Care Network abortion clinic at 1160 West Sylvania Ave. Many said protesters there can get rowdy, overbearing, and intimidating.

Councilman Matt Cherry read a letter from Shaun Enright, of the Northwest Ohio Building Trades group, opposing the proposed law because it might have "a chilling effect" on organized labor activities at any health-care facility. The letter said the 20-foot buffer would make union activities impossible.

Council President Steven Steel, who sponsored the legislation, said it would not affect free speech and there have been "a lot of scare tactics" regarding the law's affect if approved.

Mr. Steel, a Democrat, said the ordinance was written by University of Toledo law students and vetted by the city's law department.

"The goal here was to craft an ordinance that would withstand a constitutional challenge," he said.

Mr. Steel said other offenses are addressed by more than one law.

"The fact that it duplicates is part of the goal," he said. "If you read the ordinance, there is nothing in here about picketing ... it mentions unwanted physical conduct."

Councilman Rob Ludeman, a Republican, said council should not be addressing the issue and asked that it be removed from council consideration.

"There is no reason at all we should be addressing this particular issue today," Mr. Ludeman said. "It is a  constitutional issue already addressed in the municipal code of the city of Toledo."

Mr. Ludeman said it "infringes on [the first amendment] of the Constitution."

Councilman Tom Waniewski, a Republican who is running for mayor this year, said there have not been excessive police calls to the abortion clinic and questioned the need for the new law.

Rob Salem, a UT law professor who helped draft the legislation, told the council committee the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that buffer zones do not impede free speech.

Schuyler Beckwith, clinic administrator at Capital Care, said patients trying to enter the clinic are harassed by protestors every day.

‘It is violence toward women and it is terrorism,’ Ms. Beckwith said.  

David Beckwith, Ms. Beckwith’s father, briefly disrupted the meeting by yelling from the back of council chambers and attempting to have everyone present who supports the law to stand. He was removed by two Toledo police officers.

Ed Sitter, executive director of Greater Toledo Right to Life, opposed the law.

“This is an issue of freedom of speech, period,” Mr. Sitter said.

He said the buffer zone is absurd and unconstitutional. Mr. Sitter also said it would increase the punishment for disorderly conduct.

Among those against the law was a woman who said protestors at the clinic convinced her to not have an abortion. She tearfully showed pictures of her child, who she said would not have been born if there had been a 20-foot buffer between her and protesters. She refused to give her name before leaving the meeting.

Toledo Catholic Bishop Daniel E. Thomas released a statement urging council to reject the proposed law. 

"It is my earnest hope and desire that this legislation does not advance,” he wrote. “The ordinance is unnecessary and can only serve to have what the ACLU calls a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech, particularly the speech of my fellow Catholics and all other people who are pro-life who pray and offer side walk counsel at the local abortion facility.”

Contact Ignazio Messina at imessina@theblade.com419-724-6171 or on Twitter @IgnazioMessina.

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