The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a Massachusetts buffer zone law violates the First Amendment; the justices were unanimous in the ruling. In case you weren’t up to speed on the case, here are the basics: Fourteen years ago, the high court upheld a Colorado law that created an 8-foot “bubble zone” around patients entering or exiting clinics. But Massachusetts’ buffer zone law prohibited demonstrators from standing within 35 feet of the facility, a length the justices seemed dubious of from the start. Walking that length — the size of a school bus — takes approximately seven seconds.
A lot can happen in those seven seconds. A lot can happen when protesters are allowed to enter clinics, physically confront patients or block doors. Massachusetts passed its law in response to aggressive and dangerous conduct from protesters stationed directly outside clinics, including an incident in 1994 where a gunman opened fire at two abortion clinics, killing two people and injuring five others. In its defense of the measure, the state argued before the justices that the buffer law is not a prohibition on speech, but a practical measure to keep access to these facilities “open and clear of all but essential foot traffic, in light of more than two decades of compromised facility access and public safety.”
Lawyers for lead plaintiff Eleanor McCullen argued that the law was an infringement on her First Amendment rights. “It’s America,” she said in an interview with NPR News. “I should be able to walk and talk gently, lovingly, anywhere with anybody.” (Clinic workers and patients may not agree about the gentle and loving nature of confrontations with protestors.)
The high court’s ruling was limited, and doesn’t necessarily mean that all restrictions on protestors outside of clinics violate the First Amendment. As Ian Millhiser from the Center for American Progress noted on Twitter, the ruling “means that some buffer zones can stay, even if this one can’t.” Salon spoke with doctors and clinic escorts about what these laws can do — and can’t do — to protect access to abortion services, their safety and the safety of their patients and colleagues.
Dr. Warren Hern, a provider in Boulder, Colorado.
I think that the harassment of patients is unacceptable. The antiabortion fanatics feel good by making other people feel bad. The patients who come to see me are carrying a tremendous emotional burden to start with, especially my patients who are coming there to end a desired pregnancy because of some fetal catastrophe or their own medical issues. For those women, they don’t want to be here and have an abortion; they want to have a baby. And they’re there in tremendous pain because of that. And so the antiabortion people come and harass these patients and their families, in spite of the fact that they are in tremendous pain and emotional anguish. It’s unsupportable, it’s indecent, it’s indefensible.
So the buffer zone ordinance that was passed in Boulder in 1986 was an attempt to help that. A problem with the buffer zone ordinance is that it requires an actuation, an activity by the patient. She has to object to this and she has to call the police, and she’s not always going to do that. And it does not require the antiabortion demonstrator to keep a certain long distance within a few feet. Well, that’s enough to cause tremendous anguish and pain for the patient.
I accept buffer zones as an important symbolic expression of community sentiment, which they are. Our law is totally supported by the people of Boulder. We all believe in free speech; nobody’s saying they can’t go to the city park and say what they want or stand across the street and picket. But really, I think the bubble zone should be the distance a rifle bullet can travel. Or even better, New Jersey. Make the Boulder buffer zone end somewhere in New Jersey.
I can’t use the front door of my office and I can’t drive out the front driveway with the protesters there. Because all of the doctors who have been assassinated have been assassinated by so-called protesters. All the other people have been killed in Boston and Alabama and so on have been killed by so-called peaceful protesters who “went over the edge.” This is the ultimate expression of what they’re saying. If they can’t use the coercive power of the state to get people to do what they want them to do, they will kill them! And the message from the antiabortion movement, which is the face of fascism in America, is, “Do what we tell you to do, or we will kill you.” So while I believe in its symbolic importance, the buffer zone ordinance is useless against that kind of mentality. These people do not accept basic premises of civilized society and the legal process.
Dr. Cheryl Chastine, a provider in Wichita, Kansas.
Buffer zones help providers feel that their safety is respected and protected. When I travel into my clinic, I know that I am mere feet from people who want to stop me by any means necessary. That’s very intimidating. We are lucky in that we have a gate and a private parking lot that patients can drive into; even still the patients are not able to get away.
They’re not able to prevent the protesters and picketers from approaching them and making personal contact with them. And so when patients come into my clinic, they’re very stressed about the fact that that contact was forced on them. I think that if they chose to make that contact, to seek those people out and talk to them, that would be one thing. But they come to the clinic knowing that they don’t want to speak to a picketer, and yet they have to go directly past them, and it makes them angry and upset and ashamed.
Katie Klabusich, a writer, media contributor and clinic escort in New York, New York.
Buffer zones don’t stop the harassment, they just make it easier to get people inside. And just because they haven’t been able to shut down the clinics in your community doesn’t mean that there isn’t a gauntlet that people have to to walk to get into their doctor’s office. No matter where you live, that should horrify all of us.
Even before I was standing between patients and people from [extreme antiabortion group] Abolish Human Abortion in New Jersey, I have always seen this as a nationwide fight. Particularly if they can overturn Roe v. Wade — and they have a plan to do this — this is national.
But at the smallest level, the right to be able to walk into a clinic must be protected. There is now a buffer zone in place at the clinic where I escort patients, but before that we had a patient flee in the street — with traffic coming — paralyzed with fear because they were all screaming at her. She started to cry in the middle of the street. You can hear the protesters in the waiting room, in the counseling room. You can hear them blocks away. It’s terrifying.
And I have been targeted for this work. These protesters take images of the people entering and exiting clinics. It is aggressive. They film patients. They film escorts. They are there to be intimidating. The woman who wrote the blog post sharing my photo and name said, “This is a war.” They are using violent rhetoric. They knew anti-choice outlets would pick it up and circulate this violent rhetoric. The idea behind these threats is about “the greater good.” By sharing my name and face and the names and faces of others in this movement online, the message is, “If something happened to those people, it would be OK.”
If this isn’t the intent, then why put our names? Our faces? Our cities? It’s an escalation. That’s the part that I feel. The visceral feeling is that it’s not OK that they target providers, but they have a history of doing that. They publish their addresses. In a sad way, we somehow almost expect that. Now they are targeting the media and activists, too. This should worry people. We should all be worried.