From a recap of yesterday’s ruling in McCullen v. Coakley:
The US Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that banned protesters within 35 feet of abortion clinics, ruling that the law infringed upon the First Amendment rights of antiabortion activists. The decision effectively overturns about 10 fixed-buffer-zone laws across the country, from San Francisco to Portland, Maine, but offers a framework for more limited restrictions around clinic demonstrations, legal experts said.
The justices’ reasoning:
The court ruled 9-0 that the state law was a violation of the First Amendment, but the justices were split on why, with Chief Justice John Roberts appearing to be the swing vote. He joined the court’s liberal block, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, in saying that the law’s limits on speech were too broad. … In its majority ruling, the court did not establish what distance would be acceptable but made a veiled suggestion that a smaller space would be legal in Massachusetts. … The other justices, the court’s four conservatives, said the law was unfairly aimed at anti-abortion speech because it restricted protesters but not clinic employees.
Massachusetts was one of three states with a buffer zone law, according to the Guttmacher Institute, the others being Colorado and and Montana. Massachusetts began moving towards its law to restrict access to the space around clinics in 1994, when there was a national wave of violence against abortion providers. It’s likely that Colorado and Montana will have to re-evaluate their own restrictions in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.
But Morrissey warns against overstating the impact of the case:
It this may not be a big win for abortion opponents in the end, because the Court appears to have upheld the notion of buffer zones in principle:
… According to NBC, the ruling does not affect an earlier ruling upholding an eight-foot “bubble zone” around people entering the clinics. Interestingly and critically, the decision also didn’t rule that the fixed zones were content nor viewpoint based, even though the only obvious outcome was to hinder the pro-life message from being freely disseminated in that zone.
Sally Kohn elaborates:
The McCullen decision strikes down the Massachusetts law because it includes public streets and sidewalks. … Presumably under this ruling, clinic buffer zones that are more tightly drawn and do not include public sidewalks and streets are still completely permissible under the Constitution. (There is some debate about how this will affect clinics that abut sidewalks or public streets.)
Still, Marcotte fears the worst:
Supreme Court decisions are about more than just the law and what it does and does not allow. They also help set social expectations. While anti-choicers continue to believe that they own women’s uteruses, their sense that they are also entitled to control women’s movements has declined since the ’90s, at the height of clinic blockades and violence. This decision may be limited legally, but could very well be taken by the anti-choice movement as “permission” to reassert themselves and their physical presence. If past is any indicator, the frustration of being up close and personal with a woman who is about to have an abortion but being unable to actually stop her can sometimes spiral out of control.
David Harsanyi objects to that line of argument:
The genuine purpose of these buffers is to shelter people from feelings of unease, guilt or embarrassment when they are confronted. How this makes the abortion more “dangerous” for women, as supporters claim, is confusing. It is against the law to impede a person wishing to enter an establishment. It is against the law to physically assault someone (other than a fetus that is). It is against the law to damage private property. It is against the law to harass someone – and by “harass” I am referring to the legal definition not the definition offered by abortion clinics, which is often simply “inconvenience.”
It is not yet against the law to remind them what they are doing, or convince them not to enter or to posit that a doctor inside is in the process of ending human life.
On that point, Kate Pickert examines the data:
Academics who study the effects of anti-abortion protestors on women’s decision-making say it’s difficult to collect data on women who may change their minds as a result of protestors. These women may never have contact with abortion providers or researchers studying the topic. But on a related subject—the effect of protestors on women’s states of mind—there is more data.
A 2013 study published in the journal Contraception found that protestors affect the emotional state of women entering abortion clinics. The study, by researchers at the Bixby Center for Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, included interviews with almost 1,000 women who had abortions and were asked whether contact with protestors affected them emotionally. Of the women who saw protestors outside clinics, 41% reported feeling upset because of it. In addition, the more contact women had with protestors, the more upset they felt.
But asked if the protestors impacted their feelings about actually having abortions, the women reported their feelings were the same regardless.
To get a sense of women’s feelings when confronting a late-term abortion, check out the “It’s So Personal” series of first-hand accounts from Dish readers.
(Photo: Anti-abortion activists protest outside of a Planned Parenthood health clinic in Washington, DC on July 28, 2005. The group had walked from Maine to protest at pro-choice health clinics along the way. By Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)