Buffer Zones, Clinic Violence and the Supreme Court

This week we celebrate the 41st anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. We do so by rallying for our beliefs and memorializing those we lost in days before legal abortion. This year, the anniversary of Roe was preceded by oral arguments at the Supreme Court on what we call, colloquially, the “buffer zone case”. The desperate need for buffer zones around women’s health clinics are a stark reminder to the violence perpetrated against service providers, clinic escorts, and patients. Without access, there can be no choice.

By Casey Farrington, Communications Intern

It takes about ten seconds to walk through a 35-foot buffer zone. Probably faster if a crowd is yelling at you about your personal medical choices.

Apparently in those ten seconds, so-called “counselors” are losing a valuable opportunity to talk women out of getting abortions.

But it’s important to remember that the Massachusetts law at the center of McCullen v. Coakley wasn’t made because Eleanor McCullen was bothering clinic patients for 10 seconds too long. Massachusetts’ buffer zone law was a response to a deadly act of domestic terrorism.

In 1994, a man opened fire on two different abortion clinics, killing two receptionists and wounding five others. His is an example of the violence women seeking healthcare at clinics contemplate every time they schedule an appointment. The fear may seem irrational to outsiders, but the threat is real.

In 2012 alone, abortion providers in the US and Canada faced 7 incidents of assault and battery and 5 cases of arson. Since 1977 there have been 8 murders at clinics, making the death threats clinics commonly receive more than just a nuisance.

So no, Ms. McCullen, you can’t make your sweet, soft-spoken supplications within 35 feet of the Boston Planned Parenthood you frequent, because someone else might not be so sweet. With free range outside the clinic, protesters might block the entrance. They might harass, intimidate, or even physically assault a patient if given just ten more seconds.

Simply the prospect of unruly protestors blocking doors is enough to keep women away from clinics that, in addition to abortions, provide essential and sometimes life-saving procedures like mammograms and pap smears. These procedures can be uncomfortable enough without a crowd of people threatening you beforehand.

Going to the gyno shouldn’t feel like Russian roulette.

Critics argue that this law violates anti-choicers’ free speech. The same people are curiously silent when it comes to the buffer zones around funerals, voting booths, and the Supreme Court itself.

In 2012, Congress passed a law prohibiting picketers at military funerals two hours before and after the service. Protestors are also required to stay at least 300 feet away. The law was drafted to address Westboro Baptist Church protests outside military funerals; the group, though sickeningly vitriolic, is notably nonviolent.

In Massachusetts, campaigners must stay 150 feet away from polling locations on Election Day. Similar laws exist across the country.These laws help protect the sanctity and privacy of the voting process.

The Supreme Court prohibits protests anywhere on its property because the plaza isn’t a traditional “public forum”–which is curious, because neither is the doorway to a doctor’s office.

Reasonable limitations to American citizens’ free speech already exist: you can’t shout “fire!” in a crowded theater, you can’t say “fuck” on network television, and you can’t threaten someone’s life or safety. You can’t even pontificate on Antonin Scalia’s idiocy on the Supreme Court plaza. A 35-foot buffer zone around health clinics to protect the safety and peace of mind of women is at least as reasonable as that.

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