19 Years After Fatal Shooting, Abortion Clinics Could Lose Their Buffer Zones

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.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim V
Jim Ven7 months ago


Jerome S
Jerome S7 months ago

thanks for sharing.

Patti T.
P T3 years ago

A Misogynist like Brandon has NO idea what a woman feels or what each individual situation is, therefore, as usual, another moron telling us what to do with our bodies.

Maybe get off your computer Brandon & see what your family members or friends(if you have any) think, maybe you'll be surprised as well, by how many have had extramarital affairs-sex out of wedlock-use/d contraceptives-or even had abortions.
Believe me, a lot of you Religious Fanatics have done more than one of those at some point.
You people can't 'demand' one thing but do what you want on the others. Have ANY of you nuts Ever Read the NEW TESTAMENT????
Get off your pulpits, live according to your beliefs & let others live according to their beliefs. Kinda like the Constitution means in FREEDOM OF RELIGION!!
Stop pushing yourselves on others!

Marianne C.
Marianne C3 years ago

@ Barndon V:

Since you asked, the US has the highest rate of maternal mortality and complication in the industrialized world. Part of that is no doubt due to our lack of access to health care, which should be changing soon, thanks to the ACA.

Here’s information taken from an OB-GYN study in 2012, so the information is recent and likely has yet to be altered much by ACA participation. The study doesn’t tell you what the actual risks are, just the rate per category and the comparison of the two categories.


Raymond EG, Grimes DA.

To assess the safety of abortion compared with childbirth.

We estimated mortality rates associated with live births and legal induced abortions in the United States in 1998-2005. We used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System, birth certificates, and Guttmacher Institute surveys. In addition, we searched for population-based data comparing the morbidity of abortion and childbirth.

Continued below:

Marianne C.
Marianne C3 years ago

Continued from above:

The pregnancy-associated mortality rate among women who delivered live neonates was 8.8 deaths per 100,000 live births. The mortality rate related to induced abortion was 0.6 deaths per 100,000 abortions. In the one recent comparative study of pregnancy morbidity in the United States, pregnancy-related complications were more common with childbirth than with abortion.

Legal induced abortion is markedly safer than childbirth. The risk of death associated with childbirth is approximately 14 times higher than that with abortion. Similarly, the overall morbidity associated with childbirth exceeds that with abortion.

Ana Marija R.
ANA MARIJA R4 years ago

Some great comments. Thank you for sharing.

Brandon Van Every

Marianne, "I want to abort this fetus because it's a potential risk to my body" is a line of reasoning I haven't really heard before. What are the potential risks of pregnancy for most women in the USA? I understand that some could have genuine medical risks, and certainly I am in favor of abortion in cases of threat to the life or health of the mother. But the perception of possible risk? That doesn't seem like a reasonable ethical argument.

Some abortion protesting groups are trying to get women to have their babies and then have them adopted by some other family that wants them. So it's not true that the protesters never offer solutions.

However, "fire and brimstone" preachers will *seriously* get in the way of protesters who are trying to go for a softer message of compassion and aid. I've heard one protesting preacher go on and on about abortion is murder and God says the murderers should be put to death. The police came shortly after that. Maybe it was for her amplification, but I suggested to her, with controlled anger, that perhaps it was because she started talking about putting people to death. I don't know if I made a dent in her thick skull. I hope so.

Some abortion protesters don't like the other kind of protesters and do sneaky things to try to get rid of them.

Anne M.
anne M4 years ago

Just amazing how Americans tolerate human rights violations against women but worry about a proposed absence of demonstrations in favor of gay men in Russia. Let's keep in mind that these Log Cabin guys are a group of republican gay men who make war on women just like the rest of the GOP.

Marianne C.
Marianne C4 years ago

@Scott S:

“I always ask abortion protestors one question. I have never had one give me a satisfactory answer. "If you want THIS pregnant woman to not have an abortion, are you willing to adopt her baby?"”

I ask them if they’re willing to carry the pregnancy to term. Embryo transfers/transplants have been possible for decades. They work, and all it takes is a willing uterus to carry that embryonic cluster to birth.

You can probably guess, but the response is often physical recoil. One particularly virulent pro-life woman retorted, “Why should WE take that risk? WE didn’t make that mistake for her. She did THAT herself! She can take her OWN risks!”

Breaking that rejoinder down shows you a lot about these nuts. The risk they force on some other women in fine; they are perfectly okay with HER taking all the risks of a pregnancy she doesn’t want, just to meet their own high moral standards.

However, their moral standards aren’t high enough for them to take the risks, themselves. In one disjointed snarl, this woman made that much clear. She also made it clear that getting pregnant was a mistake, but not one they want a woman to be able to correct. And the same time, it wholly overlooks the chance that the mistake might not have been hers at all.

Continued below:

Marianne C.
Marianne C4 years ago

Continued from above:

Another thing her response makes clear is that this isn’t about morals at all: it’s about punishment. They want to use enforced pregnancy, enforced childbirth, and enforced motherhood as PUNISHMENT. That shows you EXACTLY how much they honor any part of the process.

They DO NOT CARE what happens to the woman OR to the potential child. They just want her to suffer so they can feel that they’ve dispensed punishment. That the child may suffer, too, is just part of the punishment they want to heap on the woman.