Vitagliano v. County of Westchester
As a devout Catholic and occupational therapist for children with special needs, Debra Vitagliano felt called to offer compassionate, face-to-face support to women considering abortion. But a law in Westchester County, New York, made it illegal for Debra to engage in polite conversation about alternatives to abortion with women outside abortion clinics.
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A call to serve society’s most vulnerable
Debra Vitagliano is a devout Catholic and an occupational therapist. At a young age, she discerned her vocation to serve children with special needs after seeing a poster of a little girl using Lofstrand crutches. For over 40 years, Debra has lived out her vocation by working with children diagnosed with various physical and neurological disabilities, including severe disabilities that some seek to address by abortion.
Debra’s work with special needs children has led her to see the inherent worth of each person, no matter their level of functioning. Consistent with her Catholic faith, Debra opposes abortion and sees it as the deliberate termination of an innocent human life.
Two years ago, Debra began participating in a prayer vigil at the Planned Parenthood in White Plains, New York. As part of her vigil, Debra engaged in peaceful prayer and held signs about the impacts of abortion on both expecting mothers and fathers. During this time, Debra trained to volunteer as a counselor to abortion-vulnerable women. She views this ministry as a final attempt to turn pregnant women away from abortion and to save the lives of unborn children.
Westchester “buffer zone” restricts free speech
Just before Debra started sidewalk counseling, Westchester County passed a law restricting free speech around abortion clinics. The law established a 100-foot zone around abortion clinics and prohibited anyone from approaching within eight feet of a person in that zone to provide information or counseling unless given express consent. Enacted after the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned Roe v. Wade, the law was passed to stop life-affirming advocates from peacefully engaging with women in their time of most need.
Debra is motivated by her faith to help vulnerable women approaching abortion clinics, but the Westchester law barred her and all others who seek to offer this help by threats of fine or imprisonment. It also deprived women of receiving peaceful and often welcomed offers to help.
Protecting free speech in the public square
The First Amendment protects the right to a free and peaceful exchange of ideas, which includes an individual’s ability to have personal conversations about matters of public concern in public places. Under the Westchester law, if Debra approached a woman to tell her that she is loved and that there are alternatives to abortion, Debra could have been criminally punished.
Once Debra appealed her case to the United States Supreme Court, Westchester County quickly backtracked and repealed the law. With the support of Planned Parenthood, Westchester County admitted that it did not need to threaten sidewalk counselors with jail time for peacefully approaching and offering help and information to women in need. On December 11, 2023, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Importance to religious liberty
- Free speech: Free speech includes the right to a free and peaceful exchange of ideas with others—including religious ideas. Freedom of speech and religious liberty go hand-in-hand; protecting one protects the other.
- Individual freedom: Religious freedom includes the freedom to practice one’s faith in all areas of life, both public and private, free of government interference.
PHOTO CAPTION: Debra Vitagliano, sidewalk counseling outside a Westchester County abortion clinic on October 12, 2023.