Feature image via Fibonacci Blue/Flickr
The Supreme Court has struck down a Massachusetts law establishing a 35-foot “buffer zone” around abortion clinics, stating that it violated the free speech rights of the groups who often picket outside them. It also cast doubt on a prior Supreme Court decision, issued in 2000, upholding much smaller “floating buffer zones” in some states. Chief Justice John Roberts delivered today’s unanimous opinion, which focused on public streets and sidewalks as “traditional public fora” to which anyone should have access.
“Even today, they remain one of the few places where a speaker can be confident that he is not simply preaching to the choir,” Roberts said in the opinion. “With respect to other means of communication, an individual confronted with an uncomfortable message can always turn the page, change the channel, or leave the Web site.”
But the point for Massachusetts lawmakers, who created the law in 2007 to replace an existing 6-foot floating buffer zone, was to create a safe space for those who would change the channel if they could. Before the law was enacted, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley told NPR earlier this year, the 6-foot zone was not enough to protect those entering and leaving the clinic. “On a day-to-day basis there was an issue of safety, of people trying to get in the clinic being approached” and “physically harassed,” she said. Protesters would slip literature in through car windows as they drove by, and both pro-choice and anti-abortion groups would crowd walkways as patients and doctors attempted to get to clinic entrances.
So for every grandmotherly part-time prison chaplain who expresses her wish to “walk and talk gently, lovingly,” with those considering abortion, as this case’s lead plaintiff stated in January, there are dozens or even hundreds of anti-abortion protestors who show up with other motives. They’re there to intimidate and harass clinic patrons, whether by yelling about murder or pelting women with baby doll parts or videotaping everyone who enters the clinic or harassing building owners and their families even away from the premises. It’s hard to anticipate at what point passion for a cause will tip into outright aggression, but I should hope we can keep it at least 35 feet away from patients who are already facing a huge decision and being threatened and intimidated.
In contrast, here are a few places where it is illegal to stage a protest: in the Supreme Court plaza, outside polling places on election day, near funerals and at the Super Bowl. Public places like roads and sidewalks are generally open for picketing, but there are many cases in which that space becomes protected. And generally speaking, if your expression of free speech involves completely blocking a roadway or building entrance, you become a safety hazard and can be removed by the police. The idea that we should create safe zones where someone’s right to free speech can’t interfere with someone else’s right to freedom of action isn’t a crazy or unusual one. It’s one our government exercises all the time.
For all their talk of wanting to comfort and counsel scared women, anti-abortion groups do a whole lot of outright harassing. People who visit clinics report feeling intimidated and scared, even if they’re visiting for a reason other than abortion. The Massachusetts government tried to solve this problem not by shutting protesters up completely, but by moving them a little further away from clinics. They tried to create a space where fear and intimidation could be mitigated, and they did so specifically because the existing space was not being respected. By striking down the 35-foot buffer zone, the Supreme Court has told people that they do not in fact have the right to make a personal medical decision without facing harassment, ridicule and personal attack.
Women aren’t the only people who get abortions, but this news brings to mind some of the #YesAllWomen conversations about safety and self-determination in the face of aggression. Those who visit abortion clinics are asked to wade their way through crowds of people shouting at them, throwing things, videotaping them and calling them names. That hostility is directly triggered by an action they have taken, and they are told it’s what they deserve for making a certain decision. They are treated with suspicion and condescension, and their decision is thrown in their faces as if they don’t know its consequences. It’s enough to intimidate even someone who is completely confident in their decision to get an abortion, and enough to break someone who is even a little hesitant about the procedure.
Yes, people who oppose abortion are allowed to do so, and allowed to tell others that they do. But when their methods reach the level seen at clinics across the country, we must ask ourselves: Should their right to express an opinion supersede a patient’s right to safety, both physical and emotional? Unfortunately, today’s Supreme Court decision declares that for people who need to access an abortion, it does.