A Buffer Zone for Abortion Patients or Free Speech?

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Rosalie Miletich
Recently, the Supreme Court heard McCullen v. Coakley, or the Massachusetts Buffer Zone case, in which pro-life activists claim that their right to free speech is violated by the standard buffer zone (35 feet) around Massachusetts abortion clinics. The buffer zone allows anti-abortion protesters to picket behind the line while ensuring the safety of patients and staff. Now, anti-abortion activists are seeking to remove this buffer zone.

Staff and pro-abortion activists are concerned that the removal of the buffer zone will endanger the physical safety of patients and staff at clinics, not to mention the emotional toll that abortion seekers will face entering a clinic. Currently, women seeking a termination to their pregnancy still have to pass the buffer zone, where protesters may verbally interact with them or use graphic signs to intimidate them. With the buffer removed, patients will have to interact directly with people whose goal is to prevent their entrance. Whether that is achieved through verbal intimidation, spitting, preventing the patient from exiting their car, or starting a fight, seems not to matter to some fanatical protesters.

There have been many instances in which patients and staff, especially staff who escort patients to their cars, have been verbally or physically assaulted by anti-abortion protesters. This piece in Mother Jones features several interviews with family planning staffers who have witnessed instances of intimidation and the physical prevention of women entering the clinic by protesters looking to start a fight. In very rare instances, clinic workers and volunteers have been shot and killed by anti-abortion activists, and some people fear that the elimination of the buffer zone may lead to more intense violence and loss of life.

To see what entering and exiting a clinic without a buffer zone would be like, read the second half of this piece in Think Progress. Protesters can trail patients to and from their cars and pass them flyers and videotapes. That in itself doesn’t seem terrifying, but the breach of personal privacy causes patients to turn back simply from the intimidation. Clinic staff can call the police if protesters break any physical boundaries, such as physically touching a patient, but some protesters feel they have nothing to lose.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of these activists, the consequences would reach further than family planning clinics, it seems. Other politically motivated activist groups would be free to confront their targets with impunity, as long as outright violence does not take place. Take, for instance, these gun rights activists carrying assault weapons who waited in a Texas parking lot to confront a small group of gun control activists. That kind of behavior is not only menacing, but downright threatening. The line between free speech and aggressive scare tactics could become very thin if it’s federally protected.

Free speech is one of the cornerstones of citizenship in the United States, and it’s vital to the existence of good journalism, political debate, and political protest. However, when the protection of free speech trumps the physical safety of other citizens, there is cause for concern.

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