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Will Supreme Court Protect Buffer Zones for Abortion Clinics?

Justices discuss bid to overturn Massachusetts law establishing buffer zones to protect patients seeking care

Sarah Lazare, staff writer

A seminal case for safe access to reproductive health care services is before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.

In McCullen v. Coakley—the court is hearing a suit brought by an anti-choice protester trying to overturn a Massachusetts law that establishied a 35-foot buffer zone around the entrances to reproductive health care facilities.

Proponents of the buffer zones, which were enacted in the state in 2007, say they provide crucial protection from intimidation, harassment, and violence that reproductive health care providers, staff, and patients face daily.

However, plaintiff Eleanor McCullen argues the buffer zones violate her First Amendment rights but women's health and pro-choice advocates strongly disagree.

“To characterize buffer zone laws as nothing more than an infringement on the rights of concerned, sweet little old ladies is to erase over 4,700 incidents of clinic violence and over 140 clinic blockades that have taken place since 1995,” Michelle Kinsey Bruns, a Virginia-based activist who’s done clinic escorting in eight different states, told ThinkProgress. “It’s a slap in the face to the victims of those attacks, and it puts others at risk for still more violence.”


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The National Abortion Federation, which tracks incidents of violence at abortion clinics, has documented 8 murders, 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 181 arsons, and thousands of other incidents of criminal activities.

The Massachusetts law was in no small way a direct result of this history of violence.

In 1994, two employees of an abortion clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts — Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols — were killed and five people injured when an abortion opponent went on a shooting rampage at the clinic.

A similar buffer-zone law in Colorado was upheld by the Supreme Court in a 2000 decision. Montana also has a similar state law as do municipalities across the United States which have been upheld by judicial review. Today's hearing, however, is receiving audience with a much more conservative Supreme Court.

The ruling on the Massachusetts case is expected by the end of June, Reuters reports.


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