McCullen v. Coakley

| Jan 31, 2014

On January 15th, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in McCullen v. Coakley, a case challenging the Massachusetts Buffer Zone Law. Passed in 2007, the law creates a 35-foot, content-neutral buffer zone around the entrance to reproductive health care clinics.

The Massachusetts legislature passed the Buffer Zone Law because Massachusetts, like other states, has a history of violence at abortion clinics. On December 30, 1994, John Salvi opened fire in abortion clinics in Boston and Brookline, Mass., killing two and wounding five others. The Buffer Zone Law was passed to enhance the safety of patients and clinic staff, after other efforts – including a floating “bubble zone” – proved unsuccessful in blocking protesters from physically intimidating patients and staff and obstructing patients’ ability to enter clinics.

Anti-choice protesters are challenging the law, claiming it violates their First Amendment right to free speech. During oral arguments, opponents of the law characterized themselves as peaceful, quiet “sidewalk counselors.” Unfortunately, that characterization belies the violent conduct that many of the protesters have employed and ignores the ongoing violence that still occurs at abortion clinics across the country.

When Erica, a member of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts’ staff, found herself pregnant at 24, she knew she wasn’t in a position to raise a child and made the decision to have an abortion. She made an appointment at the closest clinic, and when her boyfriend dropped her off to go park the car, she found the crowd of protesters screaming and yelling, with grotesque signs and placards, so overwhelming that she couldn’t make herself approach the clinic. She called her boyfriend to pick her up again, and a few days later found herself at a so-called “crisis pregnancy center,” which had no protesters, but the volunteers running the center lied to her about the medical implications of an abortion and tried to shame her out of getting an abortion.

Knowing that she had no other options, Erica and her boyfriend ended up back at the clinic a week-and-a-half later – significantly further along in her pregnancy and requiring a more expensive and complicated procedure. This time she had her boyfriend walk with her, and with the assistance of an escort she walked through the mob of protesters who yelled “murderer” and “baby killer” into her face all the way up to the clinic door. No one offered her any “counseling,” nor did they hand her any literature informing her of other options, even had she wanted it. They just intimidated her and made her feel unsafe.

Before the buffer zone law was passed in Massachusetts in 2007, protesters regularly blocked access to clinics’ front doors, physically put hands on patients and employees, and photographed or videotaped into the cars of both patients and clinic staff entering and leaving. While the passage of the Massachusetts Buffer Zone law has caused a steep decline in violence at Massachusetts’ abortion clinics, the rest of the country has not seen a decline in violence. Between 2007 to 2012, across the country there have been eight reported arsons, 41 incidents of assault and battery, more than 200 acts of vandalism, 37 bomb threats, 41 death threats, 81 suspicious packages, 50 reports of staff and patients being stalked, and 30 facility blockades that shut down services.

Buffer zones are critical to reducing violence and intimidation because they prevent protesters from being physically close enough to commit acts of harm against those accessing health care. They also encourage public safety officers to take the threats of violence seriously. In jurisdictions that have imposed buffer zones around health care clinics, 75 percent of abortion providers say that the laws have improved police response time to threats.

The buffer zone has been the only tool to effectively reduce violence at abortion clinics in Massachusetts. In 2013, a NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts survey of seven abortion providers confirmed that providers in Massachusetts agree that the buffer zone has made access to health care safer for women and their loved ones. In addition, all seven abortion clinics surveyed still consider protesters to be a serious concern for patients and providers. Every clinic still has protesters, with some seeing as many as 70 protesters on weekends.

If the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Massachusetts buffer zone law, it would take away the Commonwealth’s most effective tool in ensuring women’s safe access to basic health care.