Supreme Court Strikes Down Massachusetts Buffer Zone Law
The U.S. Supreme Court just made it harder for women to visit their doctor’s office in peace — but we won’t let them win.
Today the Court overturned a Massachusetts buffer zone law, which since 2007 had kept protestors away from the immediate entrances of women’s health centers. Today’s ruling means that staff and patients simply trying to get in for health care could now be met with signs, shouts, and sneers right in their faces.
“This decision shows a troubling level of disregard for American women, who should be able to make carefully considered, private medical decisions without running a gauntlet of harassing and threatening protesters.” —Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
The case, McCullen v. Coakley, challenged a 2007 law in Massachusetts that established a 35-foot zone around health centers in which no protests or demonstrations were permitted during operating hours.
In today’s decision, the Supreme Court said the Massachusetts law violates the First Amendment — mostly because it includes a public sidewalk. Shockingly, Court said that the protesters seek only “to engage in personal, caring, consensual conversations with women about various alternatives.”
Let’s Look at the Facts
The 2007 law aimed to strike a balance between patient safety and free speech while helping ensure that women could get medical care without the close-up intimidation and harassment of anti-abortion protestors who had caused chaos in the past.
- Before An Act Relative to Public Safety passed in Massachusetts in 2007, protesters stood shoulder to shoulder, blocking the doorway of reproductive health centers. But that’s not all. The protesters obstructed and took pictures of cars trying to enter health center driveways; dressed up as police officers in order to obtain patients’ and staff members’ personal identifying information; screamed at patients and staff; and even touched their bodies.
- After the 2007 law, there was a peaceful coexistence: Protesters still got out their message, but Massachusetts women had a few short seconds of calm before walking into our doors.
Did we mention that buffer zones are not unique to health centers? Funerals and polling places have had them for years. In fact, the Supreme Court itself has a buffer zone around its 252-by-98-foot marble plaza.
Buffer Zone Background
State and local buffer zone laws for reproductive health care centers in particular came about after an era of unprecedented violence against the facilities. In the 1980s, extremists who opposed abortion initiated an epidemic of firebombing, vandalism, burglary, death threats, and assault across the nation.
In response, Congress made it a federal crime to use force to intimidate or interfere with reproductive health care providers and patients — that’s the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE). That law is still in place. Moving beyond FACE, states and many municipalities across the country created buffer zone laws for women’s health centers.
Planned Parenthood patients and staff will continue to be protected through FACE, as well as from state and local patient protection statutes across the country. However, many of the state and local buffer zone laws operate differently from one another. Moreover, one state and nine localities have ordinances like the Massachusetts law (with a fixed-distance buffer zone) that are at risk if challenged.
What Planned Parenthood is Doing
In Massachusetts, Planned Parenthood will work with the governor, the attorney general’s office, and local law enforcement on new legal remedies to protect women’s ability to access health care with dignity and respect. Already, more than 100 people have signed up to train as clinic escorts to ensure that women can safely come in and out of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts health centers.
In recent years, we’ve seen some political leaders stand with a small yet vocal fringe dead-set on turning back the clock on legal abortion access in America — and now the Supreme Court has issued this decision. But Planned Parenthood and our supporters are fighting back. We are fighting to ensure that in spite of this ruling, the privacy and safety of every patient accessing health care and every staff member doing his or her job will be protected — no matter what.
BeCOME a Clinic Escort!
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