Abortion Opponents: 'Buffer Zones' At Abortion Clinics Violate Free Speech

Abortion opponents are challenging a law requiring protesters to stand 35 feet from abortion clinics.

About 250 people participate in a prayer service in front of a Texas abortion clinic in 2007.

About 250 people participate in a prayer service in front of a Texas abortion clinic. A case set to go to the Supreme Court challenges whether such protests can be kept away from abortion clinics.

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The Supreme Court announced Monday it would hear an appeal from abortion opponents on the constitutionality of a 2007 Massachusetts law that requires protesters to stand at least 35 feet from abortion clinics, according to the Associated Press.

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Chief among those opponents is the Massachusetts Citizens for Life, an anti-abortion group that's been challenging the law for years as a violation of their free speech rights.

"We consider it a First Amendment issue, because it's a law that targets very certain facilities, just abortion facilities," says Anne Fox, the group's president. Protests outside corporate buildings or by animal rights activists, for example, do not have protests "buffer zones." Fox says the zones also make it nearly impossible for anti-abortion activists to speak freely to women walking into clinics to get an abortion.

"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," she says.

Massachusetts Citizens for Life also works online to persuade women away from abortions; its website's homepage reads: "Pregnant? Need Help?" and leads to a list of Christian missions in Massachusetts that provide counseling on how to avoid an abortion.

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State lawmakers first approved the law for protest zones in 2000, motivated in part by fears of violence at abortion clinics. Just several years prior, an abortion opponent, John Salvi, had walked into two Boston-area Planned Parenthood reproductive health clinics and opened fire, killing two receptionists and wounding five more.

"People seeking health services should be able to do so without fear of violence, harassment or intimidation," Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts President Martha Walz said in a released statement Monday.

But Fox says she doesn't believe buffer zones can effectively prevent violence at clinics.

"If you're going to have violence, a 35-foot buffer zone wouldn't help. The only people abiding this are the peaceful protesters," she says. "And there are probably four incidents of violence at abortion clinics a year. It's much less likely to have violence at a clinic than at a McDonalds."

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According to the National Abortion Federation (NAF), which tracks anti-abortion attacks, abortion clinics have seen less than four attacks per year for the last several years.

Massachusetts Citizens for Life, which is optimistic the Supreme Court will strike down the buffer zone law, has had success at the highest court before.

In 1978, the Federal Election Commission questioned whether corporate donations had helped the group print 100,000 pamphlets calling out the pro-abortion voting records of candidates. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, saying a ban on corporate electoral spending was unconstitutional.

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