The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a Massachusetts law that imposes a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics. The court’s decision was unanimous, deeming the law a violation of the First Amendment. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the state had limited free speech rights by taking the “extreme step” of closing off public streets and sidewalks to protesters. The court, in line with a January hearing, noted that states would have to find other ways to address safety concerns posed by anti-abortion protesters.
“Given the vital First Amendment interests at stake, it is not enough for Massachusetts simply to say that other approaches have not worked,” Roberts wrote in McCullen v. Coakley. A state, instead, must better target obstructions to abortion clinics without limiting speech. A policeman, for example, can tell a protester to move if he or she is blocking a patient’s entrance into a clinic, but the state can’t block off public sidewalks or streets.
McCullen and other petitioners brought the case against Massachusetts, saying the buffer zones prevented them from engaging with clinic patients in “sidewalk counseling.” Abortion rights advocates disagreed and said such counseling often crosses the line to include harassment and abuse.
In a brief filed in support of the buffer zones, the Planned Parenthood Federation documented a history of abuse and violence at its facilities in Massachusetts. In the late 1980s, anti-abortion protesters chained themselves to clinic facilities, blocking patient and doctor access, and in 1994, two facilities were witness to a “shooting rampage,” resulting in two deaths and five injuries. Over the years, protesters changed their tactics, forcing literature on women entering clinics and shouting at patients through megaphones. Protests continue after the enactment of the 2007 buffer zone law, says Planned Parenthood, “but no longer at the expense of public safety and Facility access.”
“This decision is incredibly disappointing and ignores the very real threats of violence and intimidation that abortion providers and their patients face every day,” National Abortion Federation President and CEO Vicki Saporta said in a statement. Saporta noted that a recent survey by her organization found that 92 percent of facilities said they were concerned about patient safety and 75 percent of clinics with buffer zones reported improved patient and staff access. “Buffer zones work,” she stated.
In 2000, the high court upheld a Colorado law in Hill v. Colorado requiring a 100-foot buffer zone around all health clinics and an eight-foot buffer zone around patients, to prevent any unwanted counseling or harassment. With Thursday’s decision effectively declaring buffer zones unconstitutional, the ruling in Hill could be at issue, along with other similar state laws. Earlier this month, New Hampshire approved a measure to establish a 25-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics.
So what do you think? Should SCOTUS have struck down abortion clinic buffer zones? Vote and comment below.