6 Things To Know About The Supreme Court’s Abortion Clinic Buffer Zone Case

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court is set to begin hearing arguments on the subject of abortion. But it’s not reproductive rights, per se, that the Court will be hearing about: this time it’s a matter of clinic safety.

McCullen vs. Coakley is a lawsuit against a 2007 Massachusetts law that forbids anti-abortion protesters from entering a buffer zone of 35 feet in front of the entrances and exits of clinics. Under the law, anti-abortion protesters — known for their intimidating and harassing behavior — must do all their prosthelytizing and praying from outside of a yellow line painted on the side walk, allowing clinic patients and their escorts to pass freely into and out of the facility. Protesters say this is a violation of the First Amendment.

Find out more about what the Supreme Court will be determining in McCullen vs. Coakley, after the jump:

1. Abortion rights protesters like plaintiff Eleanor McCullen — who call themselves “counselors,” as in, they are counseling women against having abortions — argue that the buffer zone created around clinics violates their First Amendment rights to free speech by favoring those who are allowed in the buffer zone. Mind you, protesters can still congregate in other areas around the clinic, just not entrances/exits. They are also able to hold their signs containing graphic imagery, which can be seen from inside the buffer zone. (You can read more about the free speech arguments on Think Progress.)

2. The law came into being in part after the 1994 shootings in MA, when a gunman murdered receptionists Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols at two different clinics. Women’s rights supports say that the distance provided by buffer zones help keep situations more calm: a clinic escort in Alabama recounted to Think Progress how volunteers have endured being pushed and shoved by protesters, being whacked with signs, and being yelled at with bullhorns.

3. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is the lead defendant in the lawsuit. The law bars people other than clinic patients, employees, law enforcement officials or regular pedestrians from lingering inside the buffer zones or entering the clinic itself. In the Times, Coakley called the law “access balanced with speech balanced with public safety.”

4. Interestingly, some free speech experts are not in support of the law. First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams wrote in an email to the Times, “The protections of the First Amendment do not evaporate the closer one comes to an abortion clinic.” However, supporters of the law note that buffer zones also exist around polling places, for example, and those reasons are not questioned. Additionally, countered Martha Waltz, president of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, in Politico, “This law affects where people can stand, not what they can say.”

5. The law affects five clinics in Massachusetts which perform abortions, including three run by Planned Parenthood. While some clinics do perform abortions, they also provide standard women’s reproductive health care, including Pap smears (cancer screenings), breast exams and prescribing contraception.

6. The last time the Supreme Court dealt with a similar case was in 2000, regarding a Colorado law that prohibited protesting and “counseling” within a floating eight-foot of a person entering a medical facility.

Stay tuned for more about the Supreme Court’s abortion clinic buffer zone case here on The Frisky.

[New York Times]
[Boston Globe]
[Think Progress (1)]
[Think Progress (2)]

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[Image of an abortion protester via Shutterstock]