top of page
Search
  • Writer's pictureFNBC

A line is drawn between protesters, patients outside Planned Parenthood in Portland – Portlan

Marian Starkey, right, a volunteer greeter for Planned Parenthood, and abortion protestor Chuck Unger, left, watch a person walk past the Planned Parenthood clinic in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


John Andrade was speaking, and Marian Starkey was unfazed.

Wearing a bright pink vest, she marched from the corner of Congress and Elm streets, escorting two people past a half dozen protesters to the Planned Parenthood clinic.

Andrade stood near the door, holding a Bible and calling out as the group passed him.

“Sir, you could be a father today,” he said to the man in Starkey’s group. “You could be a father today, sir. We’d like to pray for you. There are things that we could help you with. You could be a father today, sir. You could be a father today, sir.”

Starkey said nothing. Another greeter in a pink vest opened the door to let the two people inside.

Andrade and Starkey converge once a week on this sidewalk at a time of heightened tension nationwide after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion this summer. Abortion opponents across the country have new license to restrict or ban the procedure.

It remains legal in Maine, where local providers are already seeing patients from states where it is not. In Portland, the decision has not changed the Friday morning scene outside Planned Parenthood.

Andrade, a street minister, comes here to demonstrate against abortion. Starkey, a volunteer greeter at the clinic, comes to walk patients past the protesters. The greeters are not allowed to engage with the protesters, so the two groups never interact, but they are here rain or shine or snow.

What’s new this summer is a green line painted on the brick sidewalk beyond which Andrade cannot cross without risking jail time and a fine.

Street minister John Andrade carries a poster and a speaker outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Portland. Andrade regularly protests and preaches outside the clinic on Friday mornings. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


A NEW LAW WITH PENALTIES

Maine law has for years prevented anyone from blocking the entrance of a health care facility or making noise loud enough to disrupt care inside. Violating that statute is a civil offense under the Maine Civil Rights Act. But the state Attorney General’s Office has only taken action against one person in 20 years, another anti-abortion street preacher named Brian Ingalls who in 2015 yelled so loudly outside Planned Parenthood that a jury found he violated that part of the state’s civil rights law, although the verdict did not result in any financial penalty or jail time.

Portland had passed an ordinance in 2013 that created a 39-foot buffer zone outside the clinic and pushed protesters into Monument Square, but it was repealed the next year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar law in Massachusetts.

Now a new Maine law that went into effect in August allows health care facilities to mark a “medical safety zone” of eight feet around their entrances. The local district attorney can charge anyone who crosses into or obstructs that zone with a Class E crime that could lead to up to six months behind bars and a $1,000 fine. The prohibitions on blocking an entrance or making disruptive noise still apply and can now also lead to criminal charges.

The law doesn’t mention abortion clinics, but the impetus was the experiences outside Planned Parenthood in Portland, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when the greeters were on hiatus. Nicole Clegg, senior vice president of public affairs at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said most protesters did not wear masks or practice social distancing, and patients felt more upset than ever about their closeness.

“If we can make that a calmer and easier way for people to enter the building – it’s not going to eliminate the protest experience,” said Clegg. “People are still going to have to walk by them – but at a minimum, they can get into the door without anybody in their way.”

Angel Hinkley holds onto two posters while standing outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Portland. Hinkley is an abortion opponent who regularly attends the Friday morning protests outside the clinic. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


The Portland clinic used to be in a house on Forest Avenue, but Planned Parenthood moved downtown more than 10 years ago. The new location is more accessible to people who use public transportation and walk, but it is also more accessible to protesters. So the organization started a greeter program like other clinics across the country.

The issue isn’t as acute for other abortion providers in Maine. Abbie Strout-Bentes, director of education and community engagement at the Mabel Wadworth Center in Bangor, said the center moved out of its downtown location in 2005 in part because of concerns about protesters and violence at abortion clinics elsewhere. Protesters still come to their location in a private office park, but they have to stand on a sidewalk some distance from the door.

Strout-Bentes said the center originally posted signs with supportive messages for people coming in but patients beelining for the building didn’t read them. Now those messages are posted in the waiting room instead.

“All they saw was an even larger crowd,” she said.

‘IT’S BETTER THAN NOTHING’

Starkey, 41, was one of the first greeters at the Congress Street clinic. She grew up in Maine, and her mom was a nurse and then a midwife. Starkey’s views on abortion were shaped in part by her mom’s work.

Marian Starkey, right, and Sheera LaBelle close doors after letting people into the building that houses the Planned Parenthood clinic in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


“Reproductive healthcare was always part of our dinner table conversation,” she said. “She would often have sad stories from her workday. People who delivered babies that were taken away by DHHS upon birth, people who did not want to be pregnant.”

Starkey now works for a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit called Population Connection, which aims to educate people about overpopulation and its impacts on the planet. Starkey first became a greeter at an abortion clinic in Virginia in 2007. She moved back to Maine in 2011 and took up her post on Congress Street soon after the clinic moved downtown.

When the Judiciary Committee was considering the medical safety zone, Starkey was one of at least eight greeters who testified in support of the bill and described harassment they had witnessed over the years.

“I’ve been called a murderer, sinner, and accomplice to murder, and have been told that I am wicked, evil, disgusting, and destined to burn in the fires of hell for all eternity,” Starkey wrote in her testimony. “I’ve also been told that I am loved and that I am welcome at the protesters’ church and that they would love to have coffee with me. It’s quite a spectrum of verbal assaults and manipulations out there on Friday mornings.”

Outside the clinic on a recent Friday, Starkey and another volunteer flanked the building door, ready to open it quickly for anyone who wanted to enter. Two more greeters stood on the corner of Congress and Elm streets to escort those approaching from the nearby parking garage. It’s not always clear who is a patient, Starkey said, but the greeters try to make themselves visible to them.

She has seen some patients decline an escort and give the protesters the middle finger on their way into the building, and she has seen others start to cry as they walk to the clinic door. It’s a short walk, not long enough for much conversation, but she said greeters sometimes hear from clinic staff that patients were grateful for their presence.

Marian Starkey, right, listens as a manager of the building that houses the Planned Parenthood clinic in Portland talks with Chuck Unger about a newly-painted zone where abortion protestors are not permitted to stand. Unger regularly attends the Friday morning protests. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


Starkey eyed the new green line.

“It’s better than nothing,” she said with a shrug.

‘WE’VE SUCCEEDED IN ATTEMPTING TO HELP’

Andrade, 39, has been coming to the clinic for about three years. He is the outreach pastor at New City Church, a Southern Baptist community in Bath, and lives in Brunswick with his wife and six children. He said he was raised by his mom and experienced homelessness when he was younger, and faith was not an important part of his life until he became a Christian at age 23.

Before then, he said he once considered abortion when a girl he barely knew thought she was pregnant. She wasn’t, but he said he still thinks about that experience now.

“I was 21, and I look back on that time when I meet these guys walking their girlfriends in,” Andrade said. “That could have easily been me, for sure.”

A woman who lives in a building nearby the Planned Parenthood clinic in Portland talks with abortion opponents after parking her car outside of the clinic. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


He said his primary goal on Fridays is to praise God and share the Gospel with others. But he also wants to offer a perspective other than the majority opinion on abortion.

“By and large, our culture not only defends abortion, but they applaud it and they support it and they champion it and they think it’s a good thing. … There’s going to be some Christians out there regularly letting you know and reminding you that there is literally murder happening in that building,” Andrade said.

Andrade said he doesn’t expect the green box on the Congress Street sidewalk to have an impact on Friday mornings, and he said he doesn’t have a problem with the new law except that he feels abortion rights supporters lied in testimony about the behavior of protesters. Asked about patients who are brought to tears by their presence, he said it is “an emotional sidewalk.”

“I listened to them just lie, saying we run up in people’s faces and yell three inches from their face,” he said. “We’ve never done even remotely close to that. … We’ll still be able to plead with women out of that 8-foot bubble.”

Andrade said he heard from a Maine anti-abortion center (also called a crisis pregnancy center) about a woman who came in instead of going to her Planned Parenthood appointment because of the protesters outside the building, and he believes they’ve inspired others to change their minds. But he also said that’s not how they judge their effectiveness.

“We’ve succeeded in attempting to help,” he said. “That’s how I would gauge our measure of success. Have we extended the help we can give, and have we showed the world what’s happening in this building?”

Chuck Unger, right, and another abortion opponent stand outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


SHARED SPACE

The building that is home to the clinic does not just house Planned Parenthood. Dorms for the Maine College of Art and Design occupy the top four floors. The first floor has been vacant since the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce moved this spring. Josh Benthien, who runs the property management company, said he expects finding the next tenant will be hard because of the protests.

“It has been a challenge to balance the free speech rights of the people wanting to protest but also have safe access for the building for the patients at Planned Parenthood and other occupants within the building,” he said.

On the first Friday with the green paint on the sidewalk, Chuck Unger placed a three-legged easel with a picture of Jesus right outside the line. An employee from the clinic came out to hang signs: NO STANDING IN THIS ZONE. Unger leaned in to read one as she taped it to a window. Someone on the building staff who did not want to give his name came out and explained the line to Unger and the other protesters in a tense exchange.

Starkey and another greeter stood on either side of the building door, listening to the back and forth but not joining in.

“Nobody wants to see this crap,” the staffer said as he turned to go.

“We don’t want to see babies murdered here,” one of the protesters called after him.

Unger, 71, became involved in these weekly protests through his church, Covenant Family Fellowship in Windham. He said he is concerned about what he sees as a lack of morality in the world around him. He doesn’t think his protest will cause patients to change their minds about getting an abortion, but hopes it reaches people who are walking or driving by.

“You’re not going to change their minds with one sign. It’s just to try to get some people to think,” Unger said. “Most people are too busy in life anyway to think about this. … They don’t even think about innocent lives. This is a way of raising consciousness.”

On recent Fridays, a half dozen protesters arrived around 9 a.m. They rested their signs against parking meters and trash cans just outside the green line. Some showed graphic, larger-than-life images of fetuses. One sign read: “You are loved. Your baby is wanted. Murder is not the answer.” Another said: “Only some Black lives matter here.”

On a microphone, Andrade and another preacher read Bible verses and talked about salvation. Sometimes they spoke about abortion, and sometimes they spoke more generally about God. One week, they set up the microphone directly underneath the clinic windows, another, Andrade preached from across the street.

Two officers from the Portland Police Department came one day because the clinic staff reported they could hear the microphone inside the building; they checked the decibel level of the microphone and warned Andrade to keep it below a certain level.

Abortion opponents Chuck Unger, left, Robert Gray, right and John Andrade, center wearing a white t-shirt, watch as volunteer greeter Marian Starkey escorts two people into the building that houses the Planned Parenthood clinic in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


“Can we pray with you?” one woman said every time greeters walked patients past.

GREETERS STAND THEIR GROUND

Ann Brandt started volunteering as a greeter after President Trump was elected. She and other women in her family have experienced extremely difficult pregnancies, she said, and she feels strongly that no one should have to be pregnant who doesn’t want to be.

Her years as a lawyer have helped her keep her cool in front of the protesters. She said she has heard them talk loudly and even yell at patients and their companions as they enter the clinic, calling them murderers or offering to help them take care of their babies. She said she has felt afraid for her safety only on a couple of occasions, like the day a car repeatedly crept by the greeters.

“I feel like it is something I can do on a local level to support other women in a concrete way, and that’s why I’m doing it,” she said.

Planned Parenthood discourages counter protesters, and the greeters said the most chaotic moments on the sidewalk occur when passersby get angry. They flash a middle finger or shout as they walk past. They stop to argue and end up in a yelling match. They steal or destroy the signs. One man walking past on a recent Friday swore at the protesters, grabbed a sign and threw it into the middle of Congress Street – without breaking his stride. A woman who lives in the neighboring building parked her car on the street and leaned on the horn to drown out their noise.

Planned Parenthood volunteer greeters Carol Schreck, second from right, and Marian Starkey stand outside the entrance to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Portland. Angel Hinkley, far right and Chuck Unger, third from left, are abortion opponents who regularly stand outside the clinic on Friday mornings. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


“Can you shut the (expletive) up?” she yelled.

Robert Gray, a protester who declined to be interviewed, had been preaching in a loud voice. “No, I cannot,” he said. “Because there are people that are on their way to hell – and more than likely, you’re one of them, so I will not shut up.”

The woman continued to yell as she entered the building, and after she was inside, the alarm on her car still went off periodically.

Through it all, the greeters were calm. They did not respond when Andrade stood right outside the green line and spoke directly to them (“We would love to sit down and reason with you,” he said). Starkey said she’s heard dozens of people try to change the minds of protesters outside the clinic over the years, but she doesn’t feel compelled to try it.

“It’s not an interesting conversation,” she said.

She knows her position — on this sidewalk, in her pink vest.

15 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Antarctic whale 'acrobatics' revealed in drone footage

Antarctic Whale 'Acrobatics' Revealed in Drone Footage Aerial footage has captured the stunning acrobatics of humpback whales in the Antarctic region. The video showcases the whales' remarkable abili

Boeing investigated after 'Dutch roll'

Air regulators are investigating new issues with Boeing planes. The investigation comes after a number of reports of a phenomenon known as "Dutch roll" on Boeing 787 Dreamliner planes. Dutch roll is

Comments

Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page