Abortion buffer: Justices should allow a zone of protection

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Massachusetts passed a law in 2000 creating a 6-foot “floating buffer zone” to provide a bubble of protection around patients and staff entering and leaving abortion clinics. The law responded to repeated incidents of harassment and violence by anti-abortion protesters.

Seven years later, it was clear that the 6-foot floating bubble didn’t work, so the legislature passed a law setting up a fixed 35-foot buffer, represented by painted arcs around clinics in Boston, Worcester and Springfield. Protesters must remain beyond them.

The buffer is now being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court. As justices heard arguments on Jan. 15, they appeared evenly divided.

The buffer-zone challenge comes as abortion rights are under attack in Congress and state legislatures. The lead petitioner in the case is Eleanor McCullen, a 77-year-old grandmother who quietly approaches pregnant women walking to the Boston clinic and seeks to talk them out of an abortion. She and others who describe themselves as “sidewalk counselors” sued, arguing that the buffer violated their First Amendment rights to protest peacefully and communicate on public streets.

Buffer zones walk a line between speech rights, privacy rights and public safety. Still, they are well-established in law and in practice. If this zone is not upheld, the area outside clinics will likely become spots where protesters can again create havoc and impede a woman’s right to abortion.

Opponents of the law argue that the buffer impedes the ability of people to freely exchange ideas on public sidewalks. But the statute, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes in its friend-of-the-court brief, is “directed at behavior, not speech.” Outside the buffer, no limit is placed on what the protesters say or how they say it.

Massachusetts and other states already create buffers around political conventions, funerals and polling places. Even the Supreme Court has a buffer on the plaza outside its building; demonstrators must remain on the sidewalk beyond.

If the high court, of all places, surrounds itself with a buffer, clinics that have had a history of undergoing intimidation and violence deserve the same.

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