BROOKLINE, MA — A patient at the town’s only clinic that offers abortion services will face assault and battery charges after punching a protester Thursday morning, police said.

Just after 9 a.m., as the young woman made her way into Women’s Health Services on Harvard Avenue, she was spoken to by two older men holding protest signs, said Sonia Powell, who said she saw what happened from across the street.

When the woman walked back out of the clinic a little while later, one of the men leaned forward and said something to her, Powell said. The young woman started yelling at him and then punched him in the face, she said.

“I can just imagine what she was going through, to maybe come outside for some air or something and then this man said something,” said Powell. “I hope she’s okay, though.”

Police said they got a call shortly afterward about a possible assault.

“A person went into the facility, left a short time later, and thought that a protester was videotaping them,” said Brookline Police Lt. Phil Harrington. “The patient went over and confronted the person she thought was videotaping and then struck the person.”

Women’s Health Services provides a range of gynecological care and family planning services including abortions in the first and second trimesters. Small groups of anti-abortion protesters regularly picket the clinic. Still, according to police logs, police have not been called to the address for the past year.

Lisa Geiger, who has a chiropractic office across the street, said a patient told her what she saw from the window.

“I know there are worse out there, but these two guys that were out there were particularly nasty today,” Geiger said.

Although it’s unclear if the men were part of Operation Rescue Boston, an anti-abortion group, the group’s volunteers have been active in Brookline. The group’s website said it saved the lives of two unborn babies in Brookline recently by talking with the women entering the clinic.

A representative from the organization did not return request for comment.

The interim president of the National Abortion Federation, an advocacy group that tracks violence at clinics around the U.S., says tensions are higher and harassment more frequent in recent years at clinics that provide abortions.

“I’m willing to concede that not everyone who is protesting, thinks of themselves as a threat, but whatever their intent is, the impact is scary,” said Rev. Dr. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale. “It’s infuriating people feel they have the right to comment on your personal life, not knowing anything about it. It doesn’t surprise me at all when people lose it and respond.”

Not far from the surface in Brookline is the memory of what happened 25 years ago.

On Dec. 30, 1994, a man named John Salvi, 22, walked into a Planned Parenthood clinic in town and killed receptionist Shannon Lowney, 25, as well as the receptionist at Preterm, Lee Ann Nichols, 38. He injured five others.

Salvi was arrested the following day in Virginia after another shooting in an abortion clinic. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 1996 and sentenced to life in prison without parole. He killed himself shortly after.

In the aftermath of that tragedy, the state created a fixed “buffer zone” requiring protesters to stay at least 18 feet from a clinic in an effort to increase safety and the right to unencumbered reproductive care and access. In 2007, the buffer zone was extended to 35 feet. The law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014.

The National Abortion Federation counted 78,114 incidents of picketing at clinics in 2017, a figure that “far exceeds any other year since we began tracking these statistics in 1977,” according to an NAF press release.

Since 1977, there have been 11 murders, 26 attempted murders, 42 bombings and more than 100 arson directed at abortion provider clinics and staff and patients nationwide, according to the NAF.

Brookline police say they make a point at any large protest, including at the clinic, to make sure an officer is on the scene.

“Whenever there’s a large-scale protests we have an officer on scene to make sure that rights on both sides are protected,” said Harrington.

A representative at the ACLU in Boston said no one was available for comment in time for publication

The Harvard Avenue location once went viral for a man who told protesters how difficult of a day it was for his family member:

Never miss another local news story: Get free local news alerts right to your inbox.

If you have an iPhone, click here to get the free Patch iPhone app; download the free Patch Android app here. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook. Got a news tip?
Jenna Fisher can be reached at Jenna.Fisher@patch.com or by calling 617-942-0474. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram (@ReporterJenna).