Supreme Court Strikes Down 'Buffer Zones' at Abortion Clinics

Pro-life supporters hold up signs as they celebrate U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down buffer zones around abortion clinics. (CNS photo/Jim Bourg, Reuters)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In a June 26 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that 35-foot buffer zones around abortion clinics -- meant to keep demonstrators away -- violates First Amendment rights.

The decision, a victory for pro-life groups, reversed an appellate court decision upholding a 2007 Massachusetts law that made it a crime for anyone other than clinic workers to stand within the yellow semicircular lines painted 35 feet from entrances of Planned Parenthood clinics in Boston, Springfield and Worcester.


Eleanor McCullen, lead plaintiff in the case, McCullen v. Coakley, said she should be able to speak and offer advice to women going to these clinics. McCullen, a 77-year-old who attends Mass at St. Ignatius Church at Boston College said when the case was brought to the Supreme Court that she had helped many women decide against abortion.

The Supreme Court, in its opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said the state law blocked public sidewalks that have been traditionally viewed as open for free speech. It also said the government's ability to limit speech in those places is "very limited."

The law in question was put in place in an attempt to prevent violent demonstrations or protests outside clinic entrances. It replaced a 2000 state law that kept protesters from approaching within 6 feet of a person who was within 18 feet of an abortion clinic -- similar to a 2000 law in Colorado that the Supreme Court upheld that year.

The Supreme Court's opinion distinguished protesters from those who "seek not merely to express their opposition to abortion, but to engage in personal, caring, consensual conversations with women about various alternatives."

In a concurrence with the main opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia discusses what he sees as the court's "onward march of abortion-speech-only jurisprudence." His concurrence was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. He observed that the court's majority opinion "carries forward this court's practice of giving abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents."

He said that the opinion "has something for everyone," by invalidating the law in question because it is inadequately tailored to circumstances, is "certainly attractive to those of us who oppose an abortion-speech edition of the First Amendment."

But the main part of the opinion moves toward creating a version of the First Amendment that applies only to speech about abortion, he said. By concluding that a statute like the one overturned is not content-based and therefore not subject to strict scrutiny under the law, "the court reaches out to decide that question unnecessarily," Scalia wrote.

Scalia cited ways in which he says the main opinion singled out abortion-only speech in reaching its conclusion that the law was unconstitutional. And he concluded that although he agrees with what the court decided, he thinks it unnecessarily addressed the issue of whether the law was sufficiently narrowly tailored. "The obvious purpose of the challenged portion of the Massachusetts Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act is to 'protect' prospective clients of abortion clinics from having to hear abortion-opposing speech on public streets and sidewalks," he said.

"The provision is thus unconstitutional root and branch and cannot be saved, as the majority suggests, by limiting its application to the single facility that has experienced the safety and access problems to which it is quite obviously not addressed," he concluded.

Justice Samuel Alito also had a separate concurrence. In it he faulted the majority for concluding that the Massachusetts law is viewpoint neutral, but he nevertheless agreed that it is unconstitutional because it burdens free speech more than necessary to accommodate state interests.

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David Smith
4 years 8 months ago
Beth Cioffoletti
4 years 8 months ago
A Catholic can believe in church teaching on abortion while opposing laws to enforce that teaching. What if outlawing abortions made things worse? Teaching the beauty and sacredness of life is having success in decreasing the number of abortions performed. This could be a wiser choice than the political/legal one. (I wrote this as a letter to the editor of the NY Times in 2004. It still rings true for me. )
Beth Cioffoletti
4 years 8 months ago
If the Catholic Church - and the Pro-Life Movement - is to be consistent in their response to this, they should be protesting outside of fertility clinics as well as abortion clinics. All those couple coming in for in-vitro fertility treatment should also be taken aside for conversations counseling them against what they are about to do (abandon, or at least freeze forever, several fertilized eggs in the hopes that one or two will result in a child for them.) Yet I have never heard of a public exercise of free speech outside of a fertility clinic. Why not?
Lyle Kenroy
4 years 8 months ago
Regardless it looks adorable even it got derailed. Anyways, a debt of gratitude is in order regarding imparting this! I truly like it.purchase soundcloud plays
Tim O'Leary
4 years 8 months ago
Beth - I think you might agree that, just as not all evil needs to be legislated against, not all evil needs to be protested or opposed in the same manner. So, while the Church teaches that in vitro fertilization is wrong in part because it puts other human beings in a perpetual inhuman state (frozen), this evil effect is not the intended effect of the perpetrators (even though they should know it is a result of their choices). But an abortion clinic is there for the sole reason to execute innocent human beings. Some people might even decide to focus their protests on the clinics that do partial-birth abortions. In a similar way, some people might protest pimps and not prostitutes. It is not inconsistent to focus one's protest on the most egregious cases of injustice. I would ask the editor to check if the comment by "Lyle Kenroy" is an automatic spam. I have noticed an increase in such non-sequitur comments with an imbedded link to an advertizement.
Tim O'Leary
4 years 8 months ago
Whenever one gets a 9-0 ruling on the Supreme Court, one can be pretty confident the losers are violating the constitution. and this administration has had a lot of 9-0 rulings. Even the Dred Scott case that justified slavery was won by 7-2 and that was considered constitutional, since it required a constitutional amendment to reverse.


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