BRISTOL, Tenn. (WJHL)- Disputes between pro-life and pro-choice advocates outside the Bristol Regional Women’s Center have led to a harassment suit. Erika Schanzenbach, the pro-life advocate filing for protection orders, has drawn the support of the Thomas More Society, a national pro-life law firm. Court documents show Schanzenbach claims she’s been stalked by four pro-choice advocates.
Both Schanzenbach and members of the group ‘Pro-Choice Bristol’ named in the lawsuit declined to comment, referring News Channel 11 to their respective lawyers.
The Thomas More Society describes Schanzenbach as a pro-life witness and sidewalk counselor. She advocates outside the Bristol Regional Women’s Center, which performs surgical abortions. Schanzenbach has captured her interactions with members of Pro-Choice Bristol in videos posted online. These videos show pro-choice advocates pushing up against a sign Schanzenbach is holding. This drew the attention of the Thomas More Society.
“We decided it was time to go to court, and file protection orders on Erika’s behalf against the most egregious harassers she faces out there,” said Michael McHale, attorney for the Thomas More Society.
The protection orders are against four Pro-Choice Bristol members: Denise Skeen, Rowan Skeen, Alethea Skeen and Cheryl Hanzlik. Court documents obtained by News Channel Eleven show the four are accused of stalking. Two of those individuals are also accused of alleged physical assault against Schanzenbach.
Some of Schanzenbach’s claims listed in court documents against the accused include allegedly grabbing and throwing her leaflets on the ground, blaring a bullhorn in her face, making sexually suggestive comments, and licking her hand and forearm.
“We are hoping that these petitions for protection orders will be successful, and that they’ll protect Erika,” said McHale. “But they’ll also protect everyone out there and hopefully de-escalate the situation overall.”
The protection orders were filed on January 16th. During a January 31st hearing in Sullivan County Chancery Court, a judge motioned to continue the hearing on April 7th.
Attorney Tom Jessee represents staff at the Bristol Regional Women’s Center, as well as volunteers who escort women into the clinic. Jessee told News Channel Eleven he has also offered legal assistance to the four accused individuals.
Jessee said pro-life groups have a history of negative interactions with patients coming to the clinic.
“Some people are yelling at the patients as they’re coming in to the office, historically,” said Jessee. “And yelling at the doctors, and yelling at the employees.”
The official Facebook page for Pro-Choice Bristol lists the group’s goal as, “People entering and leaving the clinic to receive or provide medical services will be not be victim to being accosted, taunted, harassed, heckled or intimidated… we will use any means necessary to physically block the harassers from sight and mask shouts and calls.”
Jessee said he has not yet viewed Schanzenbach’s videos of the interactions. But he does not believe the four accused individuals stalked her.
“If both parties are standing facing each other, confronting the issues that are so visceral, I don’t believe that fits the definition of stalking. As far as an assault, we’ll have to wait and see what they say the proof is.”
Lawyers for both sides said they’ve been in communication with Bristol city leaders and the police department over concerns about safety outside the clinic.