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Supreme Court Considers Legality Of Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones

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Anti-abortion protesters assemble outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston on Dec. 7. The protesters are legally behind the 35-foot buffer zone, which is marked by a painted yellow line on the sidewalk.

Anti-abortion protesters assemble outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston on Dec. 7. The protesters are legally behind the 35-foot buffer zone, which is marked by a painted yellow line on the sidewalk. (Wendy Maeda/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Wednesday in a case testing the constitutionality of buffer zones at abortion clinics.

Fourteen years ago, the court upheld Colorado's 8-foot "floating" buffer zones around individuals to protect patients and staff entering and exiting these clinics. Since then, buffer zones have prevented demonstrators from closely approaching patients and staff without permission.

But the issue is back before a different and more conservative Supreme Court.

The Massachusetts law prohibits anyone from standing within 35 feet of the entrance to a reproductive health care facility where abortions take place. That distance, the length of a school bus, takes the average person about 7 seconds to walk. And, according to the law, anyone can walk through it — as long as their purpose is to enter the facility or cross to the other side of the zone.

'Just Talk A Minute'

The zone is marked by a painted yellow line, and anybody who remains standing in it is asked to move outside the line.

Lead plaintiff Eleanor McCullen is a member of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and a part-time prison chaplain. She looks like a typical cheery grandmother, and has been standing outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston every Tuesday and Wednesday for the past 13 years.

As McCullen describes it, she asks women to "just talk a minute before you rush in. You rush in so quickly, and then you come out in tears." She tells women: "There's another option other than taking the child, the small boy or girl, from the womb." And she says she and other Operation Rescue volunteers have provided housing, medical help, even baby showers to help women who decide not to have an abortion. On her refrigerator, she keeps photos of all of the babies she says she has saved.

But McCullen says the buffer zone violates her First Amendment rights and prevents her from communicating with complete effectiveness. "It's America," she says. "I should be able to walk and talk gently, lovingly, anywhere with anybody."

Inside the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Boston, officials say 90 percent of their work is primary care, contraception, cancer screening and gynecological services — not abortion. But because of the abortions that are performed, the clinic has considerable security.

And in the building's atrium stands a stark reminder of the darkest days for Planned Parenthood in Boston: a plaque dedicated to two clinic personnel killed by a gunman, who also wounded five others, in 1994.

Public Sidewalks And Polling Places

The Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts is led by Marty Walz, a former member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In 2007, while in the state Legislature, she co-sponsored the buffer zone legislation now at issue. She compares the law with other buffer zone laws — in Massachusetts and many other states — enacted to protect people going to funerals, political conventions and polling places.

She contrasts the 35-foot buffer zone around the clinic with the "150-foot buffer zone around every polling place" in Massachusetts on Election Day. At polling places, even those handing out literature have to stay 150 feet from the entrance.

"There's even a buffer zone around the Supreme Court," Walz points out. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court does ban all demonstrations, vigils, picketing and speech-making on its 252-by-98-foot plaza, allowing demonstrations only on the adjacent public sidewalk.

Categories: Government, Health, Law