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Bring back the abortion buffer zones

Why the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion clinics is dangerous for women

June 27, 2014 2:30PM ET

On Thursday, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that barred protesters from aggressively targeting and spreading misinformation to already-nervous patients as they entered abortion clinics. The law in question established 35-foot buffer zones around entrances to Massachusetts abortion clinics, and arose in response to a 1994 anti-abortion killing spree. Protesters were and are free to offer their unwanted counsel from beyond the buffer.

The court, which enforces its own buffer zone — presumably to protect the justices from lobbying or harassment — was unanimous in striking down the Massachusetts law but divided in its reasoning. Chief Justice Roberts believes the law placed undue limits on the rights of peaceful petitioners. Justices Alito and Scalia claimed the law explicitly discriminated against the anti-choice viewpoint. Roberts is wrong: The majority of these people are far from peaceful. And Alito and Scalia are themselves anti-choice zealots who have apparently never visited an abortion clinic.

Because the Court's decision was unanimous, some are treating this decision as if it were sane, sensible, and not particularly harmful to women. The truth is that it’s anything but.

The last thing a woman about to have an abortion needs is to be screamed at by the godly.

Richard Posner

Judge, Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

I volunteered at an abortion clinic in Buffalo, New York, when I was in high school in the 1990s. The majority of the protesters I encountered daily were engaged in active harassment, not peaceful protest. Sure, a handful of them fingered rosaries and prayed. But others waved fake, lurid photographs of aborted fetuses and screamed horrible things at women in a vulnerable position. It was disrespectful and unnecessary; as Richard Posner, a conservative judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, recently put it in Slate, “The last thing a woman about to have an abortion needs is to be screamed at by the godly.”

In 1995 the federal appeals court in New York upheld a lower court’s imposition of a 15-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics in Rochester and my hometown of Buffalo. Two sidewalk counselors were permitted to enter the 15-foot zone at a time, but the lower court’s order mandated that they leave the protected area as soon as the person they were harassing asked them to. In 1997 the establishment of a 15-foot floating buffer zone around individuals entering abortion clinics was overturned, but a 15-foot buffer zone at clinic entrances was upheld.

Rage and murder

When I started volunteering at the clinic, I was told that protesters had to stay beyond the buffer. So when a man approached a friend and me one day and began to engage us in seemingly benign conversation, I wasn’t immediately alarmed.

That man turned out to be a member of the extremist anti-abortion group Operation Rescue/Save America. Our conversation quickly took an ugly turn. After a series of normal questions about school, he abruptly began asking us creepy questions about our sex lives and attacking our morals.

This went on for a few more minutes as my friend and I, stunned and terrified, looked around for help. Eventually an adult who worked for the clinic showed up and sent our antagonist packing. I was 16, and I had learned an unforgettable lesson about members of the anti-choice movement: They were aggressive and sadistic. There was nothing to be gained from sexually menacing two teenage girls — no “babies” to be “saved” in our case — just a man who wanted to picture us having sex and make us squirm. Then in October 1998, Dr. Barnett Slepian, a Buffalo obstetrician, was murdered in his kitchen by an anti-abortion zealot. He and his wife had just returned home from synagogue. His four young sons were home at the time of his murder.

The vicious attack on Slepian hardened my resolve to continue volunteering. But it was a scary time for Buffalo and a scary time for women and the doctors, male and female, who bravely continued to care for them.

Catholic grandmas

The court's recent ruling has been presented as a victory for gentle Catholic grandmothers who simply want to let young women know there are alternatives to abortion. I have a gentle Catholic grandma. She is 94 years old and has never in her life shrieked abuse at a desperate young woman, pregnant or not.

The protesters who will profit from this ruling are not gentle grandmas but the Operation Rescuers of the world, who get off on calling teenage girls whores and frightening pregnant women. Just take a look at the kind of violence that clinic workers and patients have been subjected to in the last 20 years. Not all protesters are dangerous lunatics, but the state has a legitimate interest in protecting women and clinic workers from those who are. And as a clinic escort, I felt much safer knowing where the people I had legitimate reason to fear — those who screamed at and threatened me on a daily basis — were standing and which side they were on.

I wholeheartedly believe in the right of those with whom I disagree to voice their opinions. But harassment and intimidation aren’t the same as peaceful protest.

In a free society, one person’s right to free speech must be balanced against another’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a shame to allow the most vulnerable people to be trampled by the angriest. But thanks to this ruling, the law is now on the side of the latter.

Raina Lipsitz writes about feminism, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares, Salon.com and xoJane, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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