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Abortion Rights Supporters Renewing Push For Safety Zones Around Louisville Health Facilities

Lisa Gillespie

Abortion rights supporters are renewing an effort to get a safety zone — keeping the entrance clear of protesters — in front of Kentucky’s lone abortion clinic. But this time, they’re pushing Louisville’s Metro Council to expand the proposed ordinance to include all health facilities, hoping the change makes the measure more palatable for some lawmakers.

The Kentucky Health Justice Network, through the campaign Louisville Safety Zone, has worked since 2016 to get a similar city law passed. The proposal could make it easier for people getting abortions to enter and exit the EMW Women’s Surgical Center in downtown Louisville.


The space was previously called a buffer zone, but organizers are now calling it a safety zone. It would include a 10-foot-wide space in front of health centers going from the sidewalk to the property line. And this time around, the zone wouldn’t just include abortion clinics in Louisville; it would include all health care facilities. 

Meg Sasse Stern, the support fund director at the Kentucky Health Justice Network, said the group is expanding the ordinance because of suggestions from council members.

“This is a common sense practice step towards public safety that local Metro council [members] can easily take without necessarily supporting abortion,” she said. “This is about public safety and about accessing care regardless of what kind of care someone needs to access.”

But some anti-abortion activists aren’t swayed. That includes Joseph Spurgeon, the pastor at Sovereign King Church in Memphis, Indiana. Sovereign King members routinely gather outside the EMW Center on Saturday mornings, giving incoming patients pamphlets on alternative options like adoption and verbally trying to stop patients from entering.

“So what they’re trying to make it seem as if it’s more than just to deal with the abortion clinic — ‘we’re trying to protect all medical facilities’ — but really it’s about protecting the murdered children,” Spurgeon said.

Credit Kentucky Health Justice Network
The proposed safety zone shown in orange and white. The Kentucky Health Justice Network says a safety zone would clear the area from the entryway to the street, reducing tensions and increasing safety at the entrance.

Other protesters against abortion display large images of what are allegedly aborted fetuses; some recite Bible scripture; others tell incoming patients that they’re murdering babies.

Spurgeon said that even if Metro Council passes a safety zone ordinance, his church members won’t obey it.

“We’re not going to concede any part of the public sidewalk as being off from free speech,” Spurgeon said. “We have people that already were willing to be arrested for sitting down in front of the place.”

In front of a crowd of about 30 reproductive rights activists on Thursday night, Stern said the safety zone won’t impede the free speech rights of protesters. The safety zone is very similar to a buffer zone ordered temporarily by U.S. District Judge David Hale ahead of a anti-abortion group’s annual conference in Louisville in 2017.

Credit Kentucky Equal Justice Network

“The most common argument we hear is the protesters have a right to protest or to counsel, and our response is, yes they do. And they have the entire rest of the sidewalk to do that on,” Stern said.

One woman, who identified herself as an EMW clinic escort who walks with patients to the clinic’s front door, asked if a safety zone would change the way patients enter and exit the clinic.

“They probably will be told, you can be dropped off at the door. So yea, it’s kind of part of the long-game strategy,” Stern said, adding that the ACLU of Kentucky supports the group’s 10-foot safety zone.

Spurgeon, however, said the strategy will only block protesters out.

“We know exactly what they will do — they will line up on both sides to try to block us out,” Spurgeon said.

At the meeting Thursday Stern asked community members to reach out to their council member in support of the safety zone, and to talk to others about the zone.

Stern said the group is still working to secure a sponsor for the ordinance. She’s hoping it will be introduced soon in the Public Safety Committee. 

Calls and emails to multiple council members were not immediately returned.

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