It has been almost two decades since a gunman entered two abortion clinics in Massachusetts and opened fire, murdering two workers and wounding others in the building. John Salvi was caught and arrested shortly after while attempting another shooting at a location in Virginia. The effects of his crime were long felt throughout the state, which worried it would become the latest battle point in the increasingly violent movement to end legal abortion.
As a result of that December 30th gun spree, Massachusetts abortion supporters began to rally for a buffer zone that would keep anti-choice activists further away from clinic entrances and provide a safety bubble around patients trying to access clinics. After years of testimony and development, what first was a “floating” buffer around patients entering and leaving clinics eventually turned into a 2007 law that created a 35 foot buffer zone outside all abortion providers.
Now, that law could be no more. Nearly as soon as the ink was dry on the bill, the state was sued by anti-choice protesters claiming that not being able to access patients directly infringed on their freedom of speech, creating an area where only certain types of speech was allowed. “At many [clinics] people would like to counsel a woman who would like to know her options… and this law makes it extremely difficult. You don’t want to yell at someone, but you really can’t get near them,” Anne Fox, President of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, told US News and World Reports. As for protecting patients or clinic workers from violence, Fox deems the zone useless, since someone who wanted to commit a violent act wouldn’t be deterred by a white line on the ground saying how close they can get to an entrance.
The McCullen of the case known as Coakley v. McCullen is Eleanor McCullen, positioned by pro-life activist as a devout grandmother intent on counseling the pregnant and ensuring they know all of the options they have available besides abortion. The actions of McCullen and her fellow “sidewalk counselors,” however, isn’t quite so grandmotherly. One of them “sometimes brings a loudspeaker to amplify group prayers that occur outside the clinic on the second Saturday of every month and on Good Friday,” according to legal documents. They carry signs that say “Babies are Murdered Here” and sometimes show up at clinics in groups of as many as 40 or 50 protesters at a time.
None of these essentials of so-called counseling — the prayer, the signage, the leafleting — are actually being forbidden, specifically by the Massachusetts law. Instead, it simply says that it cannot be done in the activists’ favorite spot, which, to them, is while standing at the front door of the clinic. It’s a fact that the state has noted as the case has worked its way up through the circuits during appeals, and in its latest response to the Supreme Court’s decision to review it.
“[T]he Act permits petitioners to protest at their preferred location and in the sight, hearing, and presence of their preferred audience. That is, they continue to protest outside facilities that provide abortion services, just not right in the doors,” the state wrote in its brief. ”They continue to offer information and conversation to patients and passersby, just a few seconds away from those entrances. In short, there is robust speech on the topic of abortion happening every day outside Massachusetts facilities. But now, under the revised Act, patients and pedestrians have safe use of short stretches of sidewalk needed to access facilities and to get to where they are going.”
It’s a balance that previous courts have all agreed is constitutional. “The Massachusetts statute at issue here is a content-neutral, narrowly tailored time-place-manner regulation that protects the rights of prospective patients and clinic employees without offending the First Amendment rights of others,” said the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, who ruled on the case just last January.
Now, the question is whether the Supreme Court will agree. The highest court in the land is scheduled to review the case January 15, and just the act of accepting it has many nervous that the longstanding law may be overturned. If so, it could cause a ripple effect that will be felt in a number of states and cities that have recently proposed or put their own buffer zones into effect, such as Portland, Maine. Because of that, over a dozen state Attorneys General have filed their own briefs asking the court to uphold the law.
“Since the passage of the buffer zone, clinics in Massachusetts have not seen a decrease in protestors, but have seen a dramatic decrease in violence and intimidation of women entering clinics,” said Megan Amundson, executive director, NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts in an online statement commemorating the anniversary of the Salvi shootings. “Protestors continue to be a consistent concern for abortion clinics, but the buffer zone prevents protestors from being physically close enough to commit violence against those accessing health care and encourages public safety officers to take the threats of violence seriously.”
“If the US Supreme Court strikes down the Massachusetts buffer zone law, they would take away the Commonwealth’s most effective tool in ensuring women’s safe access to basic health care.”
Would a buffer zone have stopped an incident like that of the Salvi shooting 19 years ago? Maybe not. As Fox at Massachusetts Citizens for Life argues, a person intent on causing violence probably wouldn’t stop at breaking that law as well. However, a buffer zone is imperative to allowing patients to feel safe when entering and leaving a clinic. No person should even be forced to feel that the menacing presence of a number of bodies or potential unwanted physical contact has to be the price to pay for simply obtaining a legal medical procedure.
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