Keep the buffer zone

WBUR cognoscenti contributor Joanne Barker got it right: Eleanor McCullen, anti-abortion plaintiff in the Supreme Court case challenging the 35-foot buffer zone around clinics offering abortions, isn’t typical of the individuals trying to deter patients from entering such facilities.  Claiming the buffer zone is an abridgement of her First Amendment freedoms, McCullen says sweetly she just wants to be able to “walk and talk gently, lovingly, to anybody, anywhere.”

From accompanying patients into a Rhode Island clinic to protect them from protesters, Barker knows first-hand that the diminutive grandmother isn’t typical.  When I lived in Brookline, I often saw groups of menacing protesters, many of the men, often old men, trying to intimidate young women trying to go into Planned Parenthood on Beacon Street.

That was where, in 1994, anti-abortion protester John Salvi killed two clinic staff people, Lee Ann Nichols and Shannon Lowney. It’s a long way from talking gently and lovingly to murder, but in between there are the  frightening threats and verbal attacks that constitute assault and frighten people off from exercising their medical rights. Those brandishing signs sometimes managed “inadvertently” to hit those trying to enter the clinic. Similar scenes occurred across the country, with the intent of shutting down the clinics altogether.

Many reporters inferred from the Justices’ line of questioning last week that they are predisposed to seeing this as a First Amendment issue, which would be bad news for those needing the protection of the buffer zone. Justice Antonin Scalia calls this a “counseling case, not a protest case.”  Even Justice Kagan questioned the 35-foot limitation of the Massachusetts law.  Interestingly, the Globe’s Adrian Walker noted that the Justices themselves enjoy the comfort of a buffer zone outside the Supreme Court building.

A 150-foot buffer zone outside polling places protects us all from too-eager demonstrators potentially impeding our access to cast our ballots. The courts have also validated buffer zones around schools to protect children from people with guns outside schoolyards or drugs, immortalized by Tom Lehrer  in his song “The Old Dope Peddler,” who knew “full well that today’s young innocent faces will be tomorrow’s clientele.” Sometimes people need to be protected.

The point is: a buffer zone is a legitimate area of safety that actually ensures that often-conflicting Constitutional rights are both protected.  As a journalist I often considered myself a First Amendment absolutist, but I learned years ago that, as with other rights, there must be a balancing test.  One can only hope that the Supreme Court will see the light in the McCullen v. Coakley case heard last Wednesday and  preserve a reasonable buffer zone outside abortion clinics.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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