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Strong Support Shown for Healthcare Facilities Act During Hearing

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An overwhelming majority of speakers last week voiced strong support for a proposed county law that would make it a crime to prevent a healthcare provider or patient from entering a facility.

The Westchester Board of Legislators held a June 13 public hearing to gauge sentiment on the Reproductive Healthcare Facilities Access Act. In all, 37 speakers lined up for nearly two hours to contribute their thoughts during the hearing, with several offering their views at the open comments portion of the meeting.

“We need to provide legal protection for any patients seeking abortion care,” said Kim Izzarelli of Briarcliff Manor. “A patient should receive the care they need without fear of hitting, kicking spitting or being the target of harmful threats.”

The law would require protestors to be at least 25 feet away from a facility’s property. Violators, if found guilty, could receive a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to six months in jail for the first offense and up to $5,000 and/or up to one year in jail for each subsequent offense.

The measure has gained momentum in recent weeks after the conviction in March of three anti-abortion activists who entered the All Women’s Health and Medical Service in White Plains last November in an attempt to prevent healthcare services from being rendered, specifically abortion-related care.

Some speakers also referenced the likelihood of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade since a draft decision from the high court was leaked this spring.

Cortlandt resident Elizabeth Bonilla said she was a high school senior in 1995 when she went to All Women’s Health for services. Even then, there were a group of protestors that were vehemently shouting at her for entering the building, a reminder that the proposed legislation is essential to protect women and healthcare professionals.

“That day was difficult enough for me, but the fear, harassment and intimidation I experienced when trying to access basic healthcare services were forever imprinted on my mind,” Bonilla said. “I did not experience what those distressed and defenseless patients and staff did on Nov. 27. I can only imagine how terrifying that was. If I had to suffer what these patients did on that day, I don’t know if I would have had the courage, strength or means to return another day and my life would have been very, very different.”

There were four speakers who spoke in opposition to the Reproductive Healthcare Facilities Access Act, mainly on grounds that it would violate their First Amendment rights. Vincent Malfetano, who identified himself as an attorney, said that legislators are under immense political pressure, a likely motivation for moving forward with the proposal.

However, he said it infringes on free speech because there is a minimum distance that protestors would have to stand from a facility.

“Does it violate the First Amendment? Of course, it does, but I’m wondering if you care because people who oppose this law will have to sue you and you will justify it with other people’s money, meaning mine, the taxpayers, to defend it,” Malfetano said.

Another opponent, Thomas Byrne, said the legislation would engage in illegal repression of freedom of speech.

“The text of this proposed legislation reveals that the purpose is to deny sidewalk demonstrators and sidewalk counselors their First Amendment rights and is illegal,” he said. “Repression of the people by a harmful government body must be corrected by the court system. This legislation is doomed to failure, and failure means exposure of dishonesty.”

Elise-Ann Konstantin, a Choice Matters board member, strongly disagreed with the freedom of speech argument.

“Anti-choice zealots are allowed to do that, and as much as I disagree with the content of their protest, I support their right to do so,” Konstantin said. “But what they are not allowed to do is to prevent or to interfere with others’ ability to access healthcare services for whatever reason they may have.”

Other speakers argued that as long as abortion and related services is legal in New York State, that right must not be curtailed by the potential for harassment and threats. Eileen O’Connor, a nurse practitioner for 40 years, said that accessible healthcare, whatever kind of care that may be, is a human right.

With the increase of threats to clinics around the country, the legislation is essential, she said.

“This law will better protect patients, staff and providers by specifically limiting how close protestors can get to them and/or the healthcare facility,” O’Connor said. “If someone says no to what the protestor is saying, they need to back off. Never should they be allowed to get inside the building where the potential for harm increases exponentially.”

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