Supreme Court strikes down abortion clinic buffer zone law
In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law Thursday that set a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics, saying it violates the First Amendment. Massachusetts had argued that the buffer zone, which anti-abortion protesters said violated their speech rights, keeps patients and clinic staff safer.
“The buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s asserted interests,” the court’s decision, by Chief Justice John Roberts, said. It conceded that Massachusetts has “legitimate interests in maintaining public safety on streets and sidewalks and in preserving access to adjacent reproductive healthcare facilities,” but ultimately “impose serious burdens on petitioners’ speech, depriving them of their two primary methods of communicating with arriving patients: close, personal conversations and distribution of literature.”
Two major rulings made in Supreme Court
The main plaintiff in the case, an elderly grandmother and self-described “sidewalk counselor” Eleanor McCullen, said in a statement Thursday, “I am delighted and thankful to God that the court has protected my right to engage in kind, hopeful discussions with women who feel they have nowhere else to turn.”
Abortion rights supporters had been pessimistic when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case: There was no split in the lower courts, one usual prompt for the Supreme Court, and both the district court and the First Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that the Massachusetts law was constitutional under the Supreme Court’s own precedent in a 2000 case.
“The law does not require that a patient run a public-sidewalk gauntlet before entering an abortion clinic,” the three-judge panel of the First Circuit had concluded, adding, “First Amendment rights do not guarantee to the plaintiffs (or anyone else, for that matter) an interested, attentive, and receptive audience, available at close-range.”
Things looked even bleaker for the law at oral arguments before the Supreme Court in January. Justice Samuel Alito, who was not on the high court when the Supreme Court upheld a similar law, suggested that the law discriminated against the anti-abortion viewpoint. And Chief Justice John Roberts, who also has not ruled on buffer zones while on the court, didn’t even say a word.
While Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg signaled that they saw a public safety justification for the buffer zones, Justice Elena Kagan was more doubtful. “I’m a little hung up on why you need so much space,” she said at oral argument.
Justice Kennedy’s outrage at buffer zone laws as a First Amendment violation has long been on record; in Hill v. Colorado, in 2000, he wrote, “If from this time forward the Court repeats its grave errors of analysis, we shall have no longer the proud tradition of free and open discourse in a public forum.”
The attorney for the protesters, Mark Rienzi, was eager to reposition anti-abortion protesters from potential aggressors to victims. He said the law put “people in prison for peaceful speech” and would entail “dragging Mrs. McCullen off to prison because she has a consensual conversation.”
“This decision shows a troubling level of disregard for American women, who should be able to make carefully considered, private medical decisions without running a gauntlet of harassing and threatening protesters,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement after the ruling. “We are taking a close look at this ruling, as well as patient protection laws around the country, to ensure that women can continue to make their own health care decisions without fear of harassment or intimidation.”
According to a survey of members of the National Abortion Federation, 51% of facilities with a buffer zone said they saw criminal activity drop after it was put in place. Three quarters said it had “improved patient and staff access to the facilities.” In the same survey, 92% of facilities said they are concerned about their patients’ safety approaching the facility, said the group’s president, Vicki Saporta.
Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, called the decision “incredibly disappointing,” adding, “Anti-abortion groups would like you to think that they are merely engaging in quiet ‘counseling.’ But aggressive threats and intimidation, stalking patients from their cars to the door, and verbally and physically assaulting them is not counseling.”