Protester Ray stands legally behind the 35-foot buffer zone, which is marked by a painted yellow line on the sidewalk outside a Planned Parenthood in Boston. The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in a case questioning the constitutionality of buffer zones at abortion clinics. Photo: Nicolaus Czarnecki/ Metro
As the U.S. Supreme Court mulls the constitutionality of a Massachusetts law that anti-abortionists argue inhibits their right to free speech, local pro-choice supporters and health clinics are considering the potential impact of a reduced or eliminated buffer zone outside facilities that carry out abortions.
"We have protesters almost every day in Boston, Worcester and Springfield," said Marty Walz, CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and one of the lead sponsors of the 2007 bill that led to the establishment of the state's 35-foot protective buffer zone.
"Typically protesters respect the law and stay outside the buffer zone. Thats why we believe the buffer zone works to balance the protesters First Amendment rights and let our staff be able to access the health centers safely," said Walz.
The 2007 law replaced a 2000 law that created an 18-foot buffer zone outside health center entrances and a 6-foot floating bubble zone around patients and staff that others could not step into without consent.
Buffer zone opponents argue that the space prohibits pro-life demonstrators and "sidewalk councilors" from speaking to women about abortion alternatives.
"It's not an abortion issue, it's a First Amendment issue," said Anne Fox, President of Mass Citizens for Life, the state's largest pro-life organization.
"In no way are we saying that everyone should be turned away, but everyone will agree that there are women who regret their abortions, or who don’t really want them. Those women would benefit greatly from having somebody to offer more love, more help," said Fox.
During a one-hour argument before the high court on Jan. 15, justices expressed concern that the law may be too broad, and questioned the size of the 35-foot zone, saying it is simply too big.
A ruling overturning the law as too broad could give the state the opportunity to enact a new, less-restrictive statute.
Twenty-eight year old Boston clinic escort, who identified herself as "Julie," said that while she understands the buffer zone opponents free speech concerns, she believes the zone does more good than harm.
In her five years escorting women through the zone, Julie said she's seen several heated exchanges, including a pro-life demonstrator scratch a woman's car with a picket sign, and has witnessed women who were at the clinic for cancer tests and miscarriages brought to tears because they were confronted by demonstrators.
"There was a guy when I first started, he used to whisper in my ear describing abortions in detail," she said. "Then there are the ones who go on about how you’re a Nazi sympathizer."
Regardless of the looming ruling, which is expected in May or June, Julie will continue to volunteer.
"I will deal with whatever happens. The problem is not for me, really the problem will be for the patients who are already emotionally stressed and might feel intimidated."