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A matter of safety or free speech?

Supreme Court to decide on Massachusetts’ McCullen v Coakly

by Gretchen Neal/Editor-in-Chief

Elenor

Elenor McCullen, an anti-abortion champaigner, outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston, MA.
Photo taken by Evan McGlinn. Photo originally published in The New York Times.

A new controversial conflict has been brewing in the Supreme Court this past month. It is not gay rights and it is not an animal rights issue: it is conflict over whether or not the 35-foot buffer zones surrounding health care clinics that provide abortions are constitutional.

The current law (at least, in Massachusetts) put into effect in 2007, is that no one who does not intend on entering the facility for work or healthcare-related reasons are not allowed within 35 feet of healthcare facilities that provide abortion procedures, according to Nina Totenburg of npr.org. Now, one little old lady is challenging that law. Eleanor McCullen, of Boston – a 77-year-old abortion protestor – is the leading plaintiff in a case presented to the Supreme Court over the constitutionality of the buffer zones. McCullen has been a protestor for the past 13 years – to this day she still protests outside the Planned Parenthood in Boston every week. She has claimed to have spent over $50,000 of her own money in persuading women to not have abortions. She and her followers have brought the case to the Supreme Court under the grounds that they find the buffer zones to impede on their First Amendment rights. According to Irin Carmon of MSNBC, the protestors argue that the buffer zones get in the way of their message; that yelling at patients from a 35-foot distance is not effectively communicating with them. Totenburg explored the views of Mark Rienzi, a Catholic university professor and a lawyer, who said that the buffer zone is a public sidewalk and is therefore a place where people should be allowed to “exchange ideas.” Rienzi said that protestors are non-violent, and that there is proof of this in the low persecution count in the seven years before the buffer zone law. They also argue that they are being discriminated against because the workers for the clinics are allowed inside the buffer zones with patients.

Are protestors really non-violent, though? Protestors at the Boston Planned Parenthood alone have been best known for masquerading as police officers and forcing patients to give them personal information, posing as Planned Parenthood volunteers and then harassing patients and for the tragic 1994 shooting, in which two people were killed and five others injured. The National Abortion Federation claimed that 51% of the clinics with the buffer zone law enforced have seen a drop in violent crimes on their grounds. Vicki Saporta, the National Abortion Federation president, said that safety is a huge concern for patients of such clinics. Marty Waltz, the leader of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, says that the buffer zone law is the only thing that has been effective in lowering violence on clinic grounds in the last 30 years.

Some would even point out that the buffer zones do not impede on First Amendment rights, because protestors are still allowed to say what they want, but the First Amendment does not promise them a listening audience. The state of Massachusetts has pointed out that the workers in the zone are not using it to advocate for abortion, and are therefore not abusing their allowance in the zone.

Planned Parenthood contends that people are allowed to walk through the buffer zones to pass by, and that people are only in violation of the laws when they remain standing in the zone.

McCullen and her fellow protestors have lost a few of the lower court cases. The Supreme Court heard arguments on both sides of the issue in Jan. A similar case was presented in the 2000 case of Hill v Colorado, but the court opted to uphold the buffer zone laws then. The Supreme Court has gained new members since then, but anything is possible. The court will have to weigh the speech rights of one group against the safety measures of another, which is sure to be a less-than-easy decision. Results on the decision can be expected by summer.


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