The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Massachusetts’ 35 foot buffer zone in front of abortion clinics sadly wasn’t much of a surprise Thursday morning. What was surprising, however, was the fact that the court did so unanimously. Not one of the nine justices voted to support the zone, which Massachusetts put in place to protect patient and clinic worker safety while attempting to balance the free speech rights of anti-abortion protesters trying to interact with those entering the clinic.
Legal groups who supported Eleanor McCullen and the other plaintiffs in the court case cheered the unanimous decision of the court, declaring that the clinics have no right to try to protect themselves from abortion opponents who simply want to hand out pamphlets and have conversations with patients. “Americans have the freedom to talk to whomever they please on public sidewalks,” said Mark Rienzi and Michael De Primo the lawyers who argued the case, through Alliance Defending Freedom. “That includes peaceful pro-lifers like Eleanor McCullen, who just wants to offer information and help to women who would like it. The Supreme Court has affirmed a critical freedom that has been an essential part of American life since the nation’s founding. The government cannot be allowed to create censorship zones where the First Amendment doesn’t apply. This buffer zone censored speakers from engaging in constitutionally protected speech. The Supreme Court rightly struck down the law that created the zone.”
Other anti-abortion activists who engage on the clinic sidewalks agreed, cheering on the courts. “The bubble zone of government imposed silence around abortion clinics has burst,” said Priests for Life’s Father Frank Pavone. “Today’s decision is a huge rip in the veil with which the abortion lobby has tried to cloak the truth about what abortion is and what abortion does to women. And the truth is that abortion destroys lives — physically and emotionally.”
“These buffer zones have not only denied pro-life activists their right to speak, but have also denied women the right to hear information about abortion that could be wanted and helpful to them in making a decision that will affect the rest of their lives,” said Troy Newman, President of Operation Rescue. “We are very pleased with today’s ruling that upholds our precious First Amendment rights to speak out in the public forum without interference from the abortion cartel. We know that lives will be saved as a result of this decision.”
“There is perhaps no better way to celebrate today’s Supreme Court victory by going out to your local abortion clinic to pray or sidewalk counsel,” advises Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League. “If you can, take an hour today at the abortion clinic to thank God for this great ruling and be a witness for life to women seeking abortion in your community.”
“This decision is a watershed in the movement to undo the infamous ‘abortion distortion’ — the judicial distortion in free-speech jurisprudence that effectively denies full free speech rights to the pro-life movement,” said Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel of the ACLJ in a statement. “This is a sensible and constitutionally-sound decision that sends a message to the Obama Administration and pro-abortion state governments: pro-life speech is free speech, fully protected by the First Amendment. The pro-life movement is now more free to take its life-saving message to the people who need to hear it the most.”
While abortion opponents praise the ruling and relish the idea that it states they can no longer be blocked from “counseling” pregnant people considering abortion, what they don’t seem to have come to terms with is that the buffer didn’t actually stop them from speaking to patients, it simply stopped them from following them all the way to the clinic door. The zone in fact straddled the fine line between the rights of patients and abortion opponents, allowing an opponent time to try to address a patient but then giving that patient ample area to refuse a conversation and walk away.
“The buffer zone did exactly what it was intended to do: it prevented violence at clinics while allowing anti-choice protestors to express their views,” said NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts Executive Director Megan Amundson in a statement. “Without it, the only tool we have left to combat clinic violence is to prosecute people after they have already committed violent acts. We know that prosecuting zealots does not deter them. But violence at clinics does deter women from accessing essential medical care. This decision turns back the clock to the days when women were too intimidated by protestors to seek medical care. Women’s health will suffer because of it.”
That’s a historical fact that the Feminist Majority Foundation can verify. For decades the group has organized escorts and other abortion rights supporters to protect clinics across the country when anti-abortion protesters began intimidating patients. “The Court wants to believe that these anti-abortion protestors are merely ‘sidewalk counselors’,” said FMF President Ellie Smeal in a press release. “But let us not forget that initially Scott Roeder, who murdered Dr. George Tiller, acted as a ‘sidewalk counselor’ to gain information about vulnerabilities of the clinic; Paul Hill, who killed Dr. John Bayard Britton and his escort, James Barrett, outside a Pensacola clinic was a ‘sidewalk counselor’ first. Hill was mistakenly thought to be handing them a leaflet. Instead he delivered lethal bullets.”
The Supreme Court decision struck down only the Massachusetts buffer, saying that its impact on public sidewalks and other public spaces was too restrictive. That means that other state and local buffer and bubble zones are still intact, although many already have or are expected to soon receive court challenges of their own. Meanwhile, we can expect to see more tension outside every clinic as abortion opponents celebrate their legal victory — and patients just try to access their constitutional right to a legal health care procedure.