On May 16, an anti-choice organization called Coalition Life announced that it’s filing a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of a Carbondale ordinance that prohibits protestors from approaching people within 100 feet of a medical clinic.
The article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a good overview of the basics of the situation. Since I live in Carbondale and can’t stand what Coalition Life is doing in our community, I’m here to add a few important points of information and share my commentary on the matter.
First, let’s talk about the ordinance itself.
The newly-updated ordinance prohibits protestors from approaching and speaking to people near a medical clinic without their consent. It also prohibits interfering with access to medical clinics by using threats or physical obstruction. Here’s the exact language:
14-4-2: DISORDERLY CONDUCT:
A person commits the offense of disorderly conduct when he knowingly:
H. Knowingly approaches another person within eight feet of such person, unless such other person consents, for the purpose of passing a leaflet or handbill to, displaying a sign to, or engaging in oral protest, education, or counseling with such other person in the public way within a radius of 100 feet from any entrance door to a hospital, medical clinic or healthcare facility, or
I. By force or threat of force or by physical obstruction, intentionally injures, intimidates or interferes with or attempts to injure, intimidate or interfere with any person entering or leaving any hospital, medical clinic or healthcare facility.
This Carbondale ordinance is similar to ordinances in other cities that have been upheld in the face of legal challenges by the likes of Coalition Life. The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act helps to ensure that local governments are able to pass reasonable ordinances like this one to ensure that people attempting to access a medical clinic have safe access, free of unwanted harassment or physical impediment.
This is not a free speech issue. The City of Carbondale isn’t taking away anyone’s right to free speech with this ordinance. These paid protestors (more on that in a minute) are still free to hold their signs and say their prayers and so on. They’re just not allowed to harass or obstruct people who have already made the choice to go to a medical center and access the building to receive services.
The morally reprehensible folks at Coalition Life seem to know that they’re likely to lose this lawsuit, but they’re filing it anyway. Their goal in doing so seems to be twofold:
- Leverage regional and national anti-choice funding to drain the financial resources of local municipalities like Carbondale that pass such ordinances. This is presumably seen as both a punitive measure and as a deterrent to other communities that may be considering passing similar ordinances.
- Bring the case to the Supreme Court in an effort to overturn all such ordinances at the national level, thereby legalizing clinic harassment nationwide.
As with many such ordinances, the Carbondale City Council didn’t just wake up one day and decide to pass an ordinance in order to be mean to Coalition Life. They passed this ordinance in response to actual disorderly conduct by anti-choice protestors. This ordinance is an effort to protect the clinics, their clients, and the general public from the actual disorderly conduct of Coalition Life and its anti-choice allies.
I have no ties whatsoever to any of the local clinics, so I can’t speak firsthand about the experiences of local clinic workers or clients. But I’ve heard local stories that will sound familiar to anyone in the United States who lives near clinics that offer reproductive health services. The anti-choice protestors have a tendency to get up in people’s faces, shout at them, push flyers into their hands, willfully obstruct pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and even masquerade as clinic workers in an effort to deceive clients into getting an anti-choice lecture disguised as client intake counseling. Honestly, I wasn’t even familiar with that fake clinic worker tactic (which seems like outright fraud to me!) until it was deployed locally.
This disorderly, harassing, fraudulent, immoral behavior by anti-choice protestors has to stop. This ordinance is a good first step to that end.
I’m proud of the City of Carbondale for the hospitality we’ve shown the new reproductive health centers that have popped up here in response to the horrific surge in authoritarian anti-choice restrictions of abortion access following the Dobbs decision. People are coming to Illinois from surrounding regions in search of legal access to safe and affordable reproductive health care options. And the majority of Carbondale residents either welcome these new centers and their clients or at least don’t support the disorderly and fraudulent conduct of Coalition Life and their ilk. It’s been heartbreaking to see a handful of people, mostly from neighboring cities or outside of the region entirely, act in such an inhospitable, offensive, and immoral way toward these new businesses and welcome guests in our community.
These reproductive health centers are providing such important services to the people of our city, our region, and neighboring regions that are under siege by fanatical theocratic opponents of reproductive rights. The people who work for and utilize these clinics should be treated with hospitality and support, not protest at the clinic sites and lawsuits against a city government that’s just trying to protect people’s right to not be harassed or obstructed on their way to an appointment.
The fact that some of these anti-choice protestors are outside agitators employed by Coalition Life to engage in protest activities may also mean that they’re violating other city ordinances related to soliciting or conducting business on public sidewalks. If Coalition Life is going to file frivolous lawsuits over the clinic-related ordinance, maybe the city attorney and others can examine the city code to see what other existing ordinances the group may be violating with their activities, thus rendering the lawsuit moot to a degree.
In other words, since they’re willfully engaging in disorderly conduct, and suing the city for trying to place reasonable limits on their disorderly conduct, we should throw the book at them. Limit their activities and presence in our city by making it more difficult at every turn for them to operate here. Run them out of town, so to speak. Stand firm in the assertion that Carbondale is a safe place for reproductive health services and that we will take whatever steps are necessary to stop clinic harassment and ensure safe access to said services.
Personally, I would like to see Coalition Life and similar organizations face RICO conspiracy charges for their organized efforts to willfully disrupt the legal activities of these clinics and deny clients their reproductive rights through disruptive and deceptive street tactics. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely. Abortion providers have already tried a similar RICO approach and lost in the Supreme Court. And the current composition of the court means that they would probably reject any future RICO charges against anti-choice conspirators.
However, if Coalition Life wants to take this ordinance dispute to the Supreme Court, then maybe it’s time to take the question of the criminal conspiracy of anti-choice militants back to the Supreme Court. Sue them, charge them with crimes, and try to get the case or cases kicked up to the Supreme Court, just like they’re suing Carbondale and trying to get the case kicked up to the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, I’m hopeful that they’ll lose in court, that the case won’t be taken up by the Supreme Court, and that the people of Carbondale will find creative and effective ways to counteract the efforts of outside agitators employed by Coalition Life and others to disrupt reproductive health service access here. Despite their protests and their lawsuits, the good work of helping people who are seeking reproductive health services continues.
If you’re concerned about this lawsuit and these protests, and you want to do something to help ensure that people continue having safe access to reproductive health services in our area, please contact the local clinics directly and offer to volunteer or donate: CHOICES and Alamo Women’s Clinic.
My understanding is that they don’t want well-meaning pro-choice residents to confront the anti-choice protestors directly at the clinic sites. Doing that on-site might have the unintended effect of escalating the conflict and making it harder for people to access their much-needed health care.
Instead, I encourage you to look to the clinics themselves, and pro-choice organizations like Planned Parenthood, for guidance on how to respond to this disorderly conduct in our community. The clinics and their workers are the ones who are placing themselves on the front lines to provide this care to the people of Carbondale, Southern Illinois, and surrounding regions. We should support them in a variety of ways and follow their lead in terms of how to respond to the problems posed by anti-choice protestors.
My name is Treesong. I’m a father, husband, author, talk radio host, and Real Life Superhero. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Ko-fi for my latest climate fiction releases and superhero adventures. Sign up for my newsletter to receive free cli-fi in your inbox. Check out my bookshop for climate change books, including both climate fiction and climate nonfiction!