League Battles Chicago Bubble Zone

Joe Scheidler and Cathy Mieding at a press conference outside Chicago City Hall

Joe Scheidler and Cathy Mieding address the press outside Chicago City Hall [Photo by Sam Scheidler]

On September 29, League National Director Joe Scheidler was finishing up some work after hours when reporter Len Prezak called from the local ABC affiliate. “What do you think of the ordinance the Chicago City Council will be voting on tomorrow?” he asked Joe. “Do you think it will have an impact on your work?”

This was the first the Pro-Life Action League had heard of the new “Bubble Zone” ordinance [PDF] that had been proposed by Alderman Vi Daley, whose Ward includes a busy Planned Parenthood abortuary. The law would prevent protestors from coming within 50 feet of any “health facility.” The ordinance would be considered by the Human Relations Committee the next morning.

Joe thanked Prezak for tipping him off to the proposed ordinance and said he’d have to review it before offering any comments. He then quickly organized a delegation of League staffers, veteran sidewalk counselors, and counsel from the Thomas More Society to attend the committee hearing and offer testimony.

Committee Rubber Stamps Bubble Zone

Our group arrived at City Hall the next morning to find that the proposed ordinance had been changed at the last minute—and that copies of the new language had already been provided to representatives from Planned Parenthood and Family Planning Associates (FPA).

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The revised Bubble Zone would create a fifty foot perimeter around the entrance to any health facility, within which no one would be allowed to approach closer than eight feet of anyone approaching that entrance without explicit permission. It was clearly designed to discourage sidewalk counseling.

The abortion clinic representatives falsely asserted that pro-lifers had become increasingly aggressive in the wake of abortionist George Tiller’s murder. They complained about pro-lifers “masquerading” as doctors, wearing yellow “volunteer” vests and taking photographs. They even claimed to be concerned that pro-lifers might be hit by cars while standing in the alleyway outside of FPA’s Albany facility!

None of these issues would have been impacted in any way by the proposed ordinance, but when Ann Scheidler tried to point this out to the committee, she was instructed to “stay on the issues” by chairman Tom Tunney. Sidewalk counselors Cathy Mieding and Lynn Benz were similarly bullied by Tunney as they tried to explain what sidewalk counselors actually do.

The pro-life testimony—including an explanation of the constitutional problems with the ordinance by attorney Peter Breen—fell on deaf ears, and the committee passed the ordinance. In two weeks it would be voted on by the full city council.

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Pro-Lifers Flood Mayor’s Switchboard

With so little time to fight the Bubble Zone, efforts were focused on Mayor Daley. Years before he had scuttled a similar ordinance simply by stating, “We don’t need that here.” Hoping for a similar mayoral response this time around, Joe Scheidler recorded a “robo-call” to Illinois pro-lifers asking them to tell the Mayor to kill this ordinance. The alert was also sent out through postcards and email.

The Mayor’s office was flooded with so many phone calls that the staff gave up answering them. By the third day of calling, the Mayor’s office set up a recorded response that allowed callers to push 1 or 2 to indicate support for or opposition to the proposal. But soon the “oppose” mailbox was full and no more votes could be registered.

Meanwhile, Joe’s request to meet with the Mayor was ignored, even after the ACLU—no friend to the pro-life movement—issued a statement opposing the Bubble Zone.

Bubble Zone Passes Despite Huge Protest

Protest outside Planned Parenhood in Chicago

Ann, Joe and Eric Scheidler at a press conference the day the bubble zone went into effect [Photo by John Jansen]

The morning of the City Council’s October 7 vote on the Bubble Zone ordinance, over 100 pro-lifers gathered in front of Chicago’s City Hall for a press conference and protest, holding signs reading, No Bubble Zone and Protect Free Speech. A host of reporters from Chicago print, radio and TV media covered the event, which featured testimony from veteran sidewalk counselors and a woman named Sirina, whose new grandchild would soon be born, thanks to their compassionate intervention.

After the protest, the pro-life group filed into City Hall to witness the meeting. When the Bubble Zone ordinance came up, Alderman Tunney tried to call for a quick voice vote, but several aldermen expressed a wish go on record opposing it, and the roll was called. It would take 26 votes to pass the ordinance, and the pro-lifers in the gallery anxiously tallied the yea and nays. The Bubble Zone narrowly passed with a vote of 28 to 13.

In the days after the vote, the pro-life community redoubled the effort to convince Mayor Daley to veto it. Not even the Archdiocese of Chicago was able to do so, and on October 9, the mayor told reporters that he would support the Bubble Zone.

Pro-Lifers Confront the Bubble Zone

With the Bubble Zone set to go into effect on November 17, the League shifted focus to training local activists on how to deal with the new law, while continuing to educate the public on the injustice of the measure through numerous media interviews. Attorneys at the Thomas More Society began drafting a lawsuit to stop the Bubble Zone.

Providentially, a sidewalk counseling training seminar had already been scheduled for November 14. A special session on the Bubble Zone was added to the program, with Thomas More Society attorney Tom Brejcha instructing the large audience in how to continue their life-saving work despite the confusing new law. The session was videotaped by veteran counselor JT Eschbach and made available to the Chicago sidewalk counseling community on YouTube.

On November 17, dozens of pro-lifers gathered outside Planned Parenthood’s abortion facility at LaSalle and Division Street to protest the enactment of the Bubble Zone, and the League held another press conference, again well-attended by the Chicago media. We explained to the cameras and reporters our life-saving work would continue despite the restrictive Bubble Zone and vowed to overturn the law. A special feature of the protest were large bubble-shaped signs highlighting the many medical malpractice lawsuits against Planned Parenthood.

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Police Confused about New Law

Police outside of Family Planning Associates abortion facility in Chicago

Police outside of Family Planning Associates abortion facility in Chicago [Photo by Ann Scheidler]

The next morning, Ann Scheidler went out to counsel at Albany. As she stood near the gate on Elston Avenue, clinic administrator Diana Lamon came out to tell her that she was in violation of the new Bubble Zone law, insisting that Ann had to stand at least fifty feet away from the clinic. Ann told her she was mistaken, but Lamon said she was going to call the police.

Three squad cars soon arrived and three Chicago police officers headed into the clinic. Ten minutes later, they emerged, and an Officer Erbacci approached Ann holding a copy of the ordinance. He pointed to the phrase “within fifty feet of the entrance,” supporting Lamon’s misreading of the ordinance. Ann suggested that he should read the entire sentence in question to find the actual meaning of the ordinance, not just that one phrase, but he adamantly insisted that she could not stand within fifty feet of the entrance.

Ann was unable to disabuse Erbacci of his error before the discussion was cut short because—ironically—the officers had to leave to join the funeral escort of Francheska Velez, the pregnant soldier slain along with her unborn baby in the Ft. Hood massacre. Erbacci said they’d be back to arrest anyone coming closer than fifty feet of the entrance.

That afternoon, Ann spoke with the city attorney who had drafted the ordinance, verified that her reading was correct and then faxed a copy of the ordinance and her understanding of it to every police station in Chicago with an abortion clinic nearby.

Since then, sidewalk counselors at Albany have not been hassled by police, nor have problems been reported by counselors at FPA’s facility on Washington Street in downtown Chicago or at American Women’s Medical Center on the north side. Planned Parenthood is another story.

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Trouble Brews at Planned Parenthood

Since the Bubble Zone law went into effect, it has become clear that Planned Parenthood sought the measure as a tool for harassing the strong pro-life presence there on Saturday mornings, largely provided by the young adult group of St. Mary of the Angels Church. Planned Parenthood staff, including a corps of clinic escorts (“deathscorts”), have routinely called the police to complain about the pro-lifers, but until now there was no particular law on the books they could accuse the pro-lifers of violating.

The first Saturday under the new Bubble Zone law, a police officer told the group they “could not approach or even stand within eight feet of a woman” and that no signs could be placed within fifty feet of the door. When the pro-lifers tried to explain what the ordinance really says, he said if he had to go back to the station to get a copy of it he would arrest any of them still at the clinic upon his return.

He left and came back with the ordinance, but a pro-life attorney, convinced him to let the pro-life group stand fifteen feet away until from the entrance until the precise meaning of the ordinance could be ascertained.

Since then, police interpretation of the Bubble Zone has varied from week to week. Police have forbidden pro-lifers to display graphic abortion signs on the sidewalk outside Planned Parenthood, declaring that the signs cannot touch the sidewalk because it is public property. They have forbidden a sidewalk counselor to speak to women entering the clinic unless they ask for information on their own. Police have told the pro-lifers they are forbidden to stand within eight feet of the door of the clinic—as if the door has been granted a special bubble of its own. One Saturday they even called out the S.W.A.T. team!

On another occasion, an officer was overheard saying to a deathscort that if the pro-lifers “even display signs” within the fifty-foot perimeter, “they can go to jail.” The same officer told a pro-lifer that he would not arrest a deathscort if one of them were to snatch a piece of pro-life literature out of the hand of a client “because you all are here to harass women, and this clinic is here to help them.”

Lawsuit To Be Filed Soon

As frustrating as the erratic, erroneous interpretation of the Bubble Zone has been for our sidewalk counselors, the situation may actually help overturn the law. As written, it complies with the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hill v. Colorado, which dealt with an almost identical law in that state. But as the law is being enforced, it clearly violates that decision.

League staffer Corrina Gura has been joining the pro-life presence at Planned Parenthood every Saturday, videotaping interactions with the police and securing testimonies from sidewalk counselors and prayer warriors. Meanwhile, attorneys at the Thomas More Society are preparing a lawsuit to challenge the Bubble Zone.

Moreover, with the composition of the Supreme Court having changed a great deal since 2000, and new legal arguments available, attorney Tom Brejcha has speculated that the Chicago suit could eventually lead to the overturning of Hill v. Colorado and the striking down of Bubble Zone laws across the country.

Babies Still Being Saved

As the legal challenge is being prepared, the counselors at Planned Parenthood have continued to save babies despite the Bubble Zone. One abortion-bound mother stopped to ask a pro-lifer about her large sign depicting an eight-week-old developing baby. She went into the clinic but soon came out and talked with a counselor, and though she left unsure what she would do, she has not been seen back there.

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Another week a girl came out of the clinic and stood between the deathscorts and the prayer warriors, looking distressed. A counselor tentatively approached her and then took her to a restaurant down the street to talk things over. She decided to keep this baby—her third child—once she was assured that help was available to her from the pro-life community.

Pro-life counselors have also continued to save babies at other abortuaries in Chicago, despite the difficulties posed by the Bubble Zone. While we look forward to the day when our sidewalk counselors’ freedom of speech is fully respected by the Chicago City Code, we are gratified that the abortionists’ attempt to stop our pro-life outreach has not succeeded.

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