Chicago Bubble Zones
Bursting with Tension

Story by Lucy Vernasco
Produced by Jin Wu/Lee Won Park/Jasmine Sanborn

By 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays, Carrie is waiting in a parking lot on Alston and Cicero avenues in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood, wearing a neon-colored vest. For the past two and a half years, Carrie has spent her Saturday mornings volunteering at the Family Planning Associates on Washington with other Chicago-area women and men with vests reading, “Pro-Choice Clinic Escort.” 

Carrie and her sister began escorting clinic patients after finding a call-for-volunteers on a tumblr page.

The volunteers escort women amid lines of anti-abortion activists into the center, which provides OB/GYN services and also abortions. She asked that we refrain from publishing her last name for safety reasons.

“We’ve always been pro-choice I guess,” Carrie shared. “It’s always been something on our mind. We vote for politicians who donate to Planned Parenthood and any organization. We just felt that weren’t doing enough, and this would be a really good way to be involved in the movement and help in some minor way.”

Albany Medical Surgical Center on Elston Avenue, houses an abortion clinic operated by Family Planning Associates Medical Group, was fined $40,000 by the Illinois Department of Public Health on March 10. According to the Chicago Tribune the violation includes, “failure to install an automatic sprinkler system and failure to make improvements to an emergency generator.”

“The facility is systematically addressing all of the state's concerns. The public is not at risk, and the clinic has been allowed to operate while it contests the fine and license revocation,” Richard Kates, an attorney for Albany said to the Chicago Tribune.

SB1564, which would amend Illinois’s Health Care Right of Conscious Act, would require Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) – operated by pro-life groups - to discuss abortion and provide women with abortion referrals. The bill has moved to the House after passing in the Senate and is similar to a bill that passed May 26 in California that requires CPCs to provide information about abortion and their lack of medical licenses. The House’s final action deadline is June 30, 2015.

Carrie is part of Illinois Choice Action Team, an organization of volunteers committed to advancing NARAL Pro-Choice America's mission. NARAL Pro-Choice America lobbies elected representatives for vote for pro-choice policies, while helping elect pro-choice representatives and organizing women and men who advocate for pro-choice policies.

Though the clinic escorts gather at the main entrance 15 minutes before their shift begins at 6:45 a.m., they rarely beat their opposition to the clinic sidewalk. Carrie refers to these sign waving volunteers as “antis.” They are part of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League and Abolish Human Abortion. A group ranging from five to 20 regulars lingers on the sidewalk with gruesome signs. Some even have go-pro cameras strapped to their chests.

The clinic escorts and anti-abortion group members are separated by a bubble zone ordinance. The 2009 Chicago law creates a bubble zone 8 feet around patients 50 feet within a clinic. Anti-abortion organization members need permission in order to move within the 8 foot space of a patient. Violence and harassment against abortion providers and women’s medical health centers is prevalent. In May of 2009 Dr. George Tiller, an OB/GYN and abortion-provider of Wichita, Kansas, was murdered in church by a man with a motive to stop his medical care. Since 1993, four physicians offering abortions have been killed because of their work.

In August 2010, over a year after Tiller’s murder, Planned Parenthood of Illinois published a press release about a new law that will increase punishment for perpetrators of violence against medical workers.

“[Planned Parenthood of Illinois] has seen a significant surge in the size and aggressiveness of protests in front of our health centers. PPIL has seen an increase in hostile threats via mail, packages, and phone,” said Lara Phillips of Planned Parenthood Illinois in the press release.

“We have seen firsthand how the obstruction, harassment and intimidation affects our patients. The bubble zone we have has actually helped our patients be able to access services,” Pam Sutherland vice president of public policy and education for Planned Parenthood of Illinois told the Chicago Tribune in June 2014.

Chicago is the only city in Illinois with this regulation. Anti-abortion groups say they are present to give compassionate help for women seeking abortions and they call it “sidewalk counseling.” They say the bubble-zone ordinance violates their first amendment rights in public spaces. According to Benita Ulisano, founder of Illinois Choice Action Team clinic escort team and The Clinic Vest Project, police have been called at least once a week to Family Planning Associates on Elston Ave. due to bubble zone violations.

“The police are called most often at Elston [Avenue] for blocking the alley, and sometimes for being loud and screaming by the clinic windows, and violating the buffer zone for patients entering the clinic on foot, but usually for loitering in the alley and trying to stop cars going into the parking lot,” Ulisano said.

“Sidewalk counseling is a very quiet, understated subdued activity,” said Ann Scheidler, vice president of Pro-Life Action League over the phone. “We don’t want to create any additional tension on the part of the women we’re trying to reach because we know they’re all already upset. Nobody wants to go an have an abortion. The idea is to try to calm down the atmosphere and get them to step back and take a few minutes to reconsider their position.”

Scheidler frequently joins other Pro-Life Action League members on the sidewalk in front of the Family Planning Associates’ clinic in Elston. She and her husband, Joe Scheidler, founded the organization in 1980. She said the group tries to help women in less than favorable conditions, such as when a man in their lives isn’t accepting the pregnancy or they have medical or financial concerns. It’s true that nobody wants to have an abortion, but a study performed by Diana Greene Foster, a demographer and an associate professor OB/GYN at University of California, San Francisco, said that the most common emotion felt after having one is relief.

“We go out to the doors of the abortion clinics, or the sidewalks of the abortion clinics in order to try to reach women who are facing these situations and let them know there is counseling available, that there is material help available, and emotional support, so they don’t have to feel like this is their only choice,” Scheidler said. “Very frequently, when you encounter a woman in front of an abortion clinic, what she says is, ‘I don’t have any choice. I agree with you. I don’t want to do this, I have no choice.’”

Because the group members in front of the clinic call themselves counselors, I asked whether they possess any educational training in counseling or psychology services.

“They’re not usually trained in education as far as counseling, although from time to time somebody is, but for the most part no, it’s a matter of having a heart for helping these women and being compassionate,” Scheidler said.

According to Carrie, sidewalk counseling is visually and audibly different than Scheidler describes. Her role as an escort is to become a buffer for a patients and help them move from the parking lot or sidewalk to the clinic lobby.

“We get a lot of foot traffic. [You] approach someone on the street who you assume is coming, but you’re not positive. You’re trying to put on a friendly face, and say, ‘Hi, are you coming to this clinic?’ If they say yes then you go through the ‘I can walk with you if you want. These people are going to try to hand you stuff,’” Carrie explained. “It’s always this battle of trying to get to the patient before they do. They have no shame in approaching a stranger. They’re not gentle about it. This stranger sees two people rushing at them. I’m trying to quickly intro myself, and these guys are shoving stuff at them, going through their spiel, trying to make them second guess themselves.”

Carrie said that the anti-abortion organization members interpret patients accepting a pamphlet as “consent” for moving forward and speaking to them.

“This granny ran up to her and handed her something, and the girl took it, so granny tried to get her. I told the patient, if you quickly say no, she has to back off. So the patient turned around and said, ‘No.’ I said ‘She said no. You’re breaking the buffer zone rules,’ and she actually backed off. But they think it’s implied consent, even though the patients don’t understand that that’s what they’re doing.”

Having an abortion is already difficult in Illinois. According to NARAL, 92 percent of Illinois counties have no abortion clinic. Clinics in Chicago receive patients from every county and some from out of state. They also face the challenge of crisis pregnancy centers.

From a seat on the CTA, you can see the advertisements glowing under fluorescent lights. They show women with worry lines, wringing their hands. “Need help?” From outside these centers look like women’s health clinics. They offer free ultrasounds and pregnancy tests and options. However, there are two options they cannot provide - birth control and abortion. Members of Pro-Life Action League try to persuade women to go to the Women’s Center, a CPC just a few blocks from Family Planning Associates.

According to NARAL, there are over 4,000 CPCs in the United States, with some receiving state funding. Barbara Safran is the director of the Pregnancy Counseling Center in Mundelein, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. According to Safran, crisis pregnancy centers are religiously affiliated unlicensed and unregulated centers that provide women pregnancy tests, diapers and maternity clothes. Safran said that referring women who come to the center to abortion services is against their religious beliefs. When women come to a CPC for a pregnancy test, they first fill out a questionnaire with information about their religious values and “relationship to the father.”

“On our questionnaire, we specifically ask whether they are on any type of birth control and have been and what birth control they have used,” Safran said over the phone. “Some of them will tell us that they have been on the pill, they use condoms, there’s a shot that they get. It depends what their families have talked about this or if they’ve had this information in high schools. You would be amazed how many do not use birth control, and at the point they’ve seen us, it’s too late.”

 On Friday, she gave a pregnancy test. “A young gal, and she is 17. She has been with him for two years. They had never used birth control, and she’s pregnant,” Safran said.

Safran said if the pregnancy test is negative, she asks the women how long they’ve been with their partners and speaks to them about abstinence.

“We talk about abstinence and how long these gals have been with these boys. One particular gal was a teenager. She had gone to a party and drank, and it was a sexual free-for-all and [she] wound up getting pregnant and didn’t even know who the dad was,” Safran said. “They have to know - this has nothing to do with religion - they have to know the consequences. They have a responsibility to themselves, their bodies, to relationships, to anyone they come in contact with. In our society we can tell them all about birth control and give them birth control, and that almost gives them a license to be careless.”

Safran said she is against SB1564 because it would require her to provide information that violates her religious beliefs. The conflict of whether women can choose not to carry a pregnancy remains as contentious as ever.

Ulisano remembers when the bubble zone around Chicago clinics didn’t exist, specifically when she escorted patients at Family Planning Associates on Washington.

“I was at that same clinic back in the ‘90s without the bubble zone, and it was terrible. They would bus in this one group from Milwaukee on the first Saturday of every month, and there’d be at least 100 protestors,” Ulisano said. “I remember them coming right up to the door. They were just everywhere. Escorting was a little different. It was more physical. We would have to make the chain, hover around patients, creating a space with locked arms.”

Ulisano also volunteered at the now-closed Concord Medical Center on 17 W. Grand Ave. in Chicago.

“We would actually walk the doctor from the parking lot [of Concord Medical Center] in a circle, where she was completely surrounded by us, so “antis” couldn’t get to her. At that same clinic, I used to get there at 6:30 in the morning, someone actually chained themselves to the door.”

Today with bubble zones, anti-abortion groups aren’t allowed to chain themselves to clinic doors. They have other tactics including holding signs with graphic photos, “abortion isn’t healthcare,” or are printed with swastikas. The organizations wear neon vests with “choice” adhered and now use video cameras.

Abolish Human Abortion, a religious fundamentalist group based in Noble, Oklahoma, is the most vocal and aggressive group, according to Carrie and Ulisano. Scheidler stressed that Pro-Life Action League is not associated with AHA, which compares abortion to child sacrifice and the abolishment of slavery in the United States. AHA’s posters bear phrases such as, “Abortion does not rid you of your responsibilities. It makes you the mother or father of a dead child.” and “Rape and abortion are wrong for the same reasons. They are both violent acts of aggression upon other people’s bodies.”

Scheidler said Pro-Life Action League is trying to increase its video use to hold police accountable and record occasions when ambulances are called to the clinic. Ulisano and Carrie said they find the videotaping to be uncomfortable and intimidating for patients. I asked whether the videos had been shared on the Internet.

“They did publish two of [ICAT],” Ulisano said. “Last year on Mothers Day they came out and chalked the sidewalk with ‘Mommy, if I had your eyes!’ We just took buckets of water and flushed it away. They posted that on YouTube, but we complained, and they took that down. But they haven’t posted any patient videos.”

Bubble zone regulations are becoming threatened by lawsuits and dismantled in cities around the United States. While Scheidler and the Pro-Life Action League keep fighting for the end of the ordinance, Ulisano fears it would bring about a worse time. She’s seen first-hand the effects of anti-abortion advocates’ speech at clinics.

“There was a couple coming into the clinic,” Ulisano said. “They were a young couple, and [the anti-abortion organization members] started yelling things like, ‘Save your baby! Don’t kill your baby!” and the woman burst out into tears. We don’t counsel people, but we made sure she got inside, and basically she said, ‘I had to have a hysterectomy because OF cancer and I’m here for something else, and I would love to have a baby.’ That’s just how they judge someone of childbearing age coming into the clinic. They’re always assuming that they’re having an abortion.”

She added, “We even get anti-choice people there who say, ‘I don’t usually support abortion, but this has to be done.’ Anti-choice people have abortions too.”

As represented in the map below:
Crisis Pregnancy Centers (Religiously affiliated non-medical centers without birth control or abortion options): Red
Abortion Clinics Chicago (Surgical Centers): Green
Abortion Clinics Chicago (Non-Surgical Centers/Abortion Referrals): Blue