Heated scenes outside reproductive health clinics are a familiar sight in many parts of the United States, with patients fighting their way through a crowd of protesters to access services including not just abortions but also prenatal care, pregnancy testing and routine health screening. In some cases, escorts make themselves available to help patients navigate a gauntlet that can include people who scream obscenities, wave graphic signage and entreat people not to enter the building. Consequently, many states have some form of a “buffer zone” law, requiring people to keep their distance from a clinic unless they’re entering the clinic or passing through the zone to get somewhere else.
All that could change, though, if anti-abortion advocates have their way in a recent Supreme Court case. The case involves the buffer law in Massachusetts, which requires people to keep a 35-foot zone around clinic entrances and exits clear. Like laws in other states, the Massachusetts law is intended to protect the health and safety of patients, and it also protects care providers, who might otherwise be harassed by protestors while trying to get to work.
Yet, the plaintiff in the case claims the buffer zone restricts her First Amendment rights; and she’s an ideal (and carefully chosen) plaintiff for a test case to push the barriers when it comes to buffer zones, because she’s a self-described “plump grandma,” a cheerful-looking, warm, friendly woman who looks as though she should be handing you a plate of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, not a picture of a dead fetus.
Historically, the Supreme Court has favored buffer zones, agreeing that while free speech is an issue, the First Amendment rights of people outside the zone are not impeded — they can still communicate and interact with people, while the zone provides much-needed space so people can conduct their daily business. Moreover, buffer zones have also been defended in the case of polling places (no electioneering may take place within the buffer zone, for obvious reasons), funerals and a variety of other settings.
Yet, this Supreme Court is markedly more conservative. In 2011, it defended the right of anti-gay protestors to picket the funerals of dead soldiers, and some Supreme Court watchers suspect the Massachusetts buffer zone law may be struck down in whole or in part. This could be a disaster for reproductive health clinics in that state, but also in others, because once one such law falls, others are easier to attack. This could mean that even as the country’s views on abortion access and reproductive rights become more polarized, patients will have fewer protections on their way to seeking medical care.
Ironically, the Supreme Court itself has the largest buffer zone in the United States, banning protests and demonstrations on the plaza that lies in front of its formidable edifice. We won’t know the outcome of this case until the summer, but if the Supreme Court rules against the rights of women to peacefully and privately seek medical care as it has against the families of US soldiers who want to grieve in peace, it raises the question: what entitles the Supreme Court to the luxury treatment when it comes to buffer zones?
Photo credit: Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuņo.