SCOTUS Accepts Abortion Clinic Buffer Zone Case

By Claudia Liss-Schultz

On Monday morning the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging the constitutionality of the Massachusetts clinic buffer zone law. The 2007 law mandates a 35-foot buffer zone around clinic entrances, drive ways, and exits separating abortion clinics from anti-abortion protesters. The state law, like its counterparts across the nation, is meant to protect doctors, clinic employees and patients against verbal and physical harassment and ensure that the clinic entrances remain unobstructed. Anti-abortion activists in Boston, Worcester and Springfield allege that the law unfairly prevents them from engaging patients entering the clinic and from voicing their opinions.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law in February, 2012, ruling that it protected both the patients’ rights to safe and accessible reproductive health care and the First Amendment rights of the protesters.

Massachusetts Attorney General Coakley, who defended the law before the Court of Appeals, said in a statement:

We are pleased that the court has upheld the Commonwealth’s buffer zone law, which enhances public safety and access to reproductive health care facilities, while preserving freedom of expression. The court agreed that the buffer zone leaves open ample opportunities for communication and civil engagement on the public ways outside the facilities.

Anti-abortion violence remains a largely unrecognized yet incredibly malicious form of domestic terrorism. Eight abortion clinic employees have been murdered in the United States since 1993, the most recent case being the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas in 2009. Dr. Tiller was targeted for providing third trimester abortions and was shot and killed while attending church. He had sustained a previous attempt on his life in 1993 while entering a health clinic. As of 2010, 23.5 percent of abortion clinics experience regular severe violence such as stalking, invasion and death threats. Meanwhile, 62.8 percent experience harassment such as prolonged yelling and blocking cars, aimed at intimidating patients and employees.

The goal of these actions is clear: scare women out of seeking reproductive health care and doctors out of providing it.

Salem lawyer Philip Moran, who represented the seven anti-abortion activists in the lawsuit, Eleanor McCullen et al v. Martha Coakley et al, said they were pleased that the Supreme Court had agreed to hear their case and confident they would succeed in dismantling the law. If so, the ruling could jeopardize buffer zone laws across the country. Let’s hope that he’s wrong.

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