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East County News Service

Photo: Anti-abortion protestors at a Mississippi abortion clinic

June 26, 2014 (Washington D.C.) – Today the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics in Massachusetts violate the free speech rights of protesters.  But ironically, the high court has its own, far wider 100-foot-wide buffer zone to keep protesters away from the Supreme Court.

Massachusetts passed its law to protect abortion workers and patients after a gunman killed two abortion clinic receptionists and wounded five others at two area clinics in 1994.    Violence against abortion providers has occurred elsewhere, notably the murder of Dr. George Tiller, a doctor who provided abortions in Wichita, Kansas.

Similar laws are on the books in other states, including California. But abortion opponents argued that such restrictions violated their First Amendment free speech rights.

The case, McCullen v. Coakley, was filed on behalf of Eleanor McCullin, an opponent of abortion who wanted to speak face-to-face with women entering a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston that offers abortion as well as other health services. 

The ruling was hailed by pro-life groups, which contend their members seek to stop violence against the unborn. But it was critized by pro-choice groups, which argue that the ruling puts safety of women and healthcare providers at risk.

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, called the decision “wonderful news for all Americans because it upholds our crucial First Amendment rights of free speech,” adding that it is also important for “women considering abortion because it frees sidewalk counselors at abortion facilities to be able to offer compassionate and caring alternatives.”

But the National Abortion Rights League (NARAL) denounced the high court’s ruling.  “Let’s be clear: today’s decision puts women and health care providers at greater risk,” said NARAL Pro-Choice president Ilyse Hogue.

While protesting at clinics is legal, obstructing sidewalks, threatening, intimidating or committing violence against women seeking abortions or abortion clinic employees remain illegal under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

But NARAL’s Massachusetts  executive director Megan Amundsen said the buffer zone had worked to stop violence.  “Without it, the only tool we have left to combat clinic violence is to prosecute people after they have committed violent acts…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.”

The high court, in singling out buffer zones around abortion clinics, lets stand a double standard, since buffer zones where protesters are banned have been allowed around an array of other places ranging from polling places to political conventions to the Supreme Court building itself.   Thus the ruling leaves some court pundits pondering: why do politicians, Supreme Court justices and ordinary voters merit protection from protesters they may not wish to encounter, while women with unwanted pregnancies do not?  Should one type of protest be any more (or less) deserving of free speech protection than others?


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