The Supreme Court "Buffer Zone" Case Is The Biggest Abortion Clinic Battle You've Never Heard Of

While walking past the Planned Parenthood clinic in the Boston neighborhood of Allston Wednesday morning, an elderly woman in a white visor asked if I would like a flower — a red rose. Nearby, a small group of people prayed the rosary, red roses in hand, while a priest held a large placard proclaiming: "It's Not Too Late To Seek Help." They all stood behind a painted yellow line on the sidewalk — the buffer zone currently being debated in the Supreme Court that keeps anti-abortion protesters 35 feet from the clinic entrance.

The Supreme Court will deliver its ruling on McCullen v. Coakley this June. At the center of the case are: a 2007 Massachusetts law that established a 35-foot buffer zone at every abortion clinic in the Commonwealth; and Eleanor McCullen, a 77-year-old anti-abortion protestor who regularly conducts "counseling" outside the Planned Parenthood Allston clinic. But the case extends outside of Boston.

If the high court strikes down the law, it may mean a return to the anti-abortion violence that prompted buffer zones nationwide more than a decade ago.

A History of Violence

Since Roe v. Wade, abortion clinics have been the targets of extreme violence, ranging from arson to bombings and bioterrorism. According to the National Abortion Federation, there were roughly 1,800 incidences of violence against abortion providers and more than 630 clinic blockades between 1977 and 1994. The violence reached its peak during the '90s, when two doctors and a clinic escort were murdered in Pensacola, Fla., in two separate incidents.

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The anti-abortion extremism soon spread to Massachusetts — an unlikely arrival for the traditionally "blue" state. On Dec. 30, 1994, 22-year-old John Salvi entered the Planned Parenthood in Brookline, an affluent town that borders Boston, and shot and killed receptionist Shannon Lowney. He then traveled about two miles down the road to Preterm Health Services, where he killed receptionist Lee Ann Nichols and injured two others.

Massachusetts residents were rattled by the shootings. Planned Parenthood moved its clinic from Brookline to its current spot on Commonwealth Avenue, and upgraded its facility with security cameras, metal detectors and padlocked doors. But harassment from protesters continued.

"Protesters were dressing up as police officers, blocking doors at clinics, standing in front of cars, photographing patients and very aggressively throwing literature," Megan Amundson, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, tells Bustle. Amundson added that at Planned Parenthood in Springfield, a protester used a fireplace prodder to pass anti-abortion literature into cars, "hurting a number of people."

Zoning In

To curtail harassment, Massachusetts enacted a buffer zone law in 2000. It created a "floating buffer," barring protesters from coming within six feet of clinic staff and patients. The law was modeled after a measure in Colorado, which applied to all health care facilities. The Supreme Court upheld the zone in Hill v. Colorado.

In 2007, Massachusetts revised the law, creating a fixed 35-foot buffer zone. The only people allowed within the zone are clinic employees, agents (i.e. escorts) or patients and their companions. Since the zone has been in place, Amundson said abortion providers and their patients have felt more secure.

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Currently, just four states have buffer zone laws: Massachusetts, Colorado, Montana and New Hampshire. However, a number of cities across the U.S., including Chicago, Pittsburgh and San Francisco, have similar buffer zone ordinances in place. And according to the Guttmacher Institute, 14 states plus the District of Columbia have clinic safety laws that bar protesters from blocking access to clinics, harassing employees or destroying property.

“We know that buffer zones aid law enforcement and reduce violence,” Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said in a statement. “Surveys show that buffer zones decrease criminal activity and increase safe access to clinics.”

The Legal Battle

When it comes to the courts, the buffer zone becomes entangled in a fight between free speech and patient safety. Eleanor McCullen and her fellow abortion opponents say the buffer zone violates their First Amendment rights — after all, people do have the right to stand and hand out literature on public sidewalks.

But it's more than free speech: The buffer zone has also made it more difficult for protesters to discourage women from having abortions. McCullen, who's a member of anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, told The New York Times that she has been much less successful at "sidewalk counseling" because she can no longer make direct contact with clinic patients.

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So far, the Massachusetts buffer zone has been backed by the lower courts. The First Circuit Court of Appeals concluded in 2013 that the state has the right to protect the safety of patients, and that the current buffer zone does this without infringing on anyone’s First Amendment rights.

But the Supreme Court may reach a different conclusion, and legal experts speculate the McCullen v. Coakley decision may be a close one. The SCOTUS blog noted that after January's oral arguments, it may be difficult for the Supreme Court to “put together a majority to uphold a law.”

Justice Scalia argued that the protesters outside of clinics are not protesting at all, but just "want to talk to people." Even justices who support the buffer zone questioned if 35 feet was too much. "That’s a lot of space," Justice Kagan said.

What's At Stake

The Supreme Court could not only strike down the Massachusetts law, but also overturn or limit the buffer zone set by Hill v. Colorado. If that happens, abortion clinics across the U.S. may be in jeopardy.

While some anti-abortion protesters — like the ones I met Wednesday in Boston — are peaceful, there is still the threat of harassment, vandalism and violence. Most recently, a Montana clinic was forced to close after it sustained significant damage to its windows, equipment and furniture by an anti-abortion activist.

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There's also the fear that harassment from anti-abortion activists will lead women to seek unsafe alternatives, such as crisis pregnancy centers—which are notorious for spreading false information—or shady abortion providers. It’s a very real fear: A patient of rogue abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell told The Associated Press that she went to his clinic because it was out of the eye of unruly protesters.

“[The protesters] want to limit abortion access,” Amundson said. “Having an abortion is a constitutionally protected right, and buffer zones protect that right.”

By Wednesday afternoon, just one protester remained outside Planned Parenthood Allston. Standing with his toes on the yellow line, the elderly man yelled at a woman entering the clinic: "Don't you want to give your baby a birthday?"

Although 35 feet away, she heard him clearly.