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U.S. Supreme Court To Hear Arguments Over Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones


The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments one week from today in a case challenging a Massachusetts law that establishes a protest-free zone around abortion clinics.  Thirty groups have filed briefs in the case including Planned Parenthood.

Martha Walz, CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, was a state legislator and co-sponsor of the 2007 law that established a buffer zone extending out 35 feet from the entrances and driveways of abortion clinics.  She said it is a public safety measure designed to prevent patients from being harassed and intimidated by protestors.

"This law must be protected. We can not go back to a time in Massachusetts when women are routinely harassed and intimidated while trying to access the health care they need."

Protestors who are challenging the law claim it violates their rights under the First Amendment. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office is defending the law before the Supreme Court, will argue that it strikes the proper balance between free speech and the reproductive health rights of women.

Walz, speaking on a conference call with reporters Wednesday, recalled how as she did research prior to the passage of the law she visited a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston and witnessed “intense and aggressive harassment” by abortion protestors.

" I remember one of the protestors screaming at me just inches away from my face as I stood in the center's doorway. To say the least it was scary," said Walz.

Walz said the law grew out of a history of violent protests by a group called Operation Rescue and others. She said protestors would block entrances to clinics and in some cases go inside the clinics to harass patients and staff.  She said attempts to stop this with court injunctions proved ineffective.

"There was always another group of people willing to step in and protest and blockade," said Walz.

Massachusetts put a law on the books in 2000 that created a so-called bubble around people entering abortion clinics, but this proved difficult to enforce.

Teresa Roberts, a nurse who has worked for Planned Parenthood for two decades, said the buffer zone has eased tensions outside the clinics.

" I don't' feel threatened on my way to work. I don't feel the same level of risk anymore, and our patients seem less upset and distressed as they enter the building."

Abortion clinic violence is not an abstract issue in Massachusetts. Roberts was working for Planned Parenthood in 1994 when a gunman opened fire at one of the group’s offices and at the offices of another health care provider then located on the same street in a Boston suburb.

Two other states, Colorado and Montana, have state laws establishing buffer zones around abortion clinics. But, there are a number of local ordinances in the northeast, including Burlington, Vermont and Portland, Maine.

Roger Evans, senior director of Public Policy Law and Litigation at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the Massachusetts buffer zone law is no different from laws that regulate conduct outside schools, polling places, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

" If it ( the court) should find some problem with the Massachusetts ordinance it is likely to cast into doubt the permissibility of buffer zones more widely."

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston upheld the Massachusetts law. Another appeals court  in California struck down a buffer zone ordinance because it found police were applying it only to abortion protestors and not to people defending the rights of patients.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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