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Slices of Life: Keep the Buffer Zones As They Are

Belmont Patch's Lisa Gibalerio strike a good balance between safety and free speech

Written by Belmont Patch's columnist Lisa Gibalerio

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments regarding the constitutionality of buffer zones at abortion clinics.  In Massachusetts, the law currently supports a 35-foot buffer zone surrounding the entrance to clinics.  The plaintiff in the case, Operation Rescue, believes that the buffer zone violates their First Amendment rights of free speech.

I am interested in the protection of free speech. And not just when it reinforces my existing beliefs. I subscribe to a news magazine that week after week summarizes national and international news events from both sides of the political spectrum. I read and respect NY Times writer David Brooks even though his views don’t often align with my own.

What I am hoping the Supreme Court does in this particular case is the following: to strike a reasonable balance between the rights of protesters to practice free speech on the one hand, and the rights of women to enter an abortion clinic free from harassment and intimidation on the other.

I believe that balance exists in buffer zones.

Buffer zones allow a safe space from those who are protesting a woman’s right to access the clinic. Thirty-five feet is still plenty close enough to be both seen and heard; it’s the length of an average school bus.

Here in Belmont, we apply state buffer zone laws every time we go to the polling booth to select Town Meeting members, local officials, and the like. It’s 150 feet.  That’s right, at the Butler School where I vote, sign holders have to allow residents 150 feet of space and privacy.

I would argue that seeking an abortion is far more personal, painful, and in every way more private. Yet the law that requires a mere 35 feet of space is now under scrutiny.

The Supreme Court, by the way, is protected from protesters by a buffer zone of 200 feet. I can’t read a sign or hear much from 200 feet away, and maybe that’s the point, but why then is 35 feet potentially untenable?

Free Speech has always been reasonably regulated for safety, and safety is definitely an issue on the grounds of these clinics. While lead plaintiff, Eleanor McCullen, may only be interested in offering “loving counsel,” most who protest at abortion clinics desire much more than to express themselves on this topic.  What they want to do is influence the behavior of the women seeking services there, and they do this through, among other efforts, intimidation.

Free Speech, at least in spirit, is not about intimidation. It is not about harassing people at a vulnerable point in life.  As far as I am concerned, members of Operation Rescue can write Op Ed pieces in the paper, they can cover their cars in Pro Life bumper stickers, and they can protest Roe vs. Wade (from 200 feet away!), but they do not have the right to attempt to influence the behavior of anyone else, face-to-face, in front of a clinic.

It begs the question, what about the rights of these women? The rights of the protesters must be balanced with the rights of women.

When I was 19, I accompanied a friend to a clinic in Providence.  She asked for a ride and I was able to give her one.  She wept sad, terrified tears on the way there and she wept sad, terrified tears on the way home.  Yet we encountered no protesters.  Not a soul yelled to her that “Jesus loves your baby!” or “abortion stops a beating heart!” or that “this is murder!”  Even so, the pain she was in was palpable.

Please Justices Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia and Thomas: a reasonable compromise already exists.  You yourselves reap its benefits on a daily basis.

Allow the buffer zones to stand.

Robin Cushman Phillips January 21, 2014 at 04:12 PM
Well said, Lisa!
Johanna Swift Hart January 21, 2014 at 04:34 PM
I didn't know about the Supreme Court buffer zone – very interesting – and I think the polling-place buffer zones are a good analogy. I support the clinic buffer zones for many of the same reasons you do, and would add that the safety issue is even greater than the privacy/harassment issue. While the elderly women Operation Rescue has chosen as the face of this legal challenge might not appear dangerous, the huge majority of clinic protesters I've seen over the years are middle-aged men, and the threat of violence against clinic staff is well documented. Not to mention that most women entering a reproductive health center are not even there for abortion services, but the people shoving pictures of aborted fetuses in their faces don't seem to care. I think the free speech argument is disingenuous at best since their speech is not being proscribed in any way, only their ability to impede and harass medical staff and those seeking medical care.
Anne Johnson Mahon January 21, 2014 at 11:02 PM
I love this article Lisa! A few years ago I was taking a bunch of 4th graders to a game at BU, took a wrong turn and tried to turn around in a driveway. A bunch of people blocked my van and started screaming BABY KILLER. The girls in the car were crying and I had to call the police to get out of the crowd. It was awful, the young girls were traumatized, and I took those crazy fucks to court. Free Speech? Bullshit!

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