First Amendment victory? Step-back for women's constitutional rights? Local reaction to SCOTUS abortion buffer zone ruling

Last modified: Thursday, July 03, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Martha Walz said while escorting patients to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston in 2007, a protester was inches from her face screaming as loud as he could in an apparent attempt to discourage women from availing themselves of the clinic’s services.

It was exactly that type of experience Walz was hoping to spare patients and staff of clinics that provide abortions when, as a member of the state House of Representatives, she helped sponsor the Act Relative to Public Safety that created a 35-foot protest-free “buffer zone” around such clinics.

Now, as the CEO of Planned Parenthood, Walz laments Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared such zones unconstitutional.

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The decision was welcomed by anti-abortion groups like Massachusetts Citizens for Life, which called it “a victory for all citizens who value their First Amendment rights.”

Gov. Deval Patrick said the decision was disappointing but said he would work with lawmakers on new rules.

“I think the Legislature shares the concern about how to strike a balance between the ability of women to exercise their constitutional rights and the ability of objectors to exercise theirs,” said Patrick, adding that he believed the law that was struck down was fair.

Walz said Planned Parenthood will now look to existing state and municipal laws to see if there is a way to create safe zones around clinics that will allow people to exercise their free speech rights but still allow patients and staff to enter the clinics unmolested.

“That kind of conduct is very frightening,” Walz said via conference call Thursday. “To the patients and staff there is little distinction between what the court calls protesters and those who want to engage in a conversation.”

“It’s intimidating,” she said. “It can feel very frightening.”

Citizens for Life, however, said the court’s decision “reiterates tradition in this country that the sidewalk is ‘the’ (emphasis theirs) vehicle for free speech,” and noted there are already laws on the books prohibiting the blocking of entrances and harassing people.

“This is a victory for all citizens who value their First Amendment rights and for clinic-bound women who might need someone to talk to,” Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, said in a statement.

“The McCullen decision makes it clear that more restrictive laws may be written only if the current laws are not working — something that the state of Massachusetts failed to prove,” the statement added, referring to plaintiff Eleanor McCullen.

State Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, however, said those laws are inadequate when it comes to protecting women from harassment outside of clinics.

Story, who also worked on the buffer zone legislation, said protesters “don’t distinguish between someone coming in for a breast exam and someone coming in for an abortion.”

“Anyone going into Planned Parenthood is suspect,” Story said.

Walz said in the absence of buffer zones her organization would, if necessary, pursue injunctions against any unruly protesters.

“This decision shows a troubling level of disregard for American women, who should be able to make carefully considered, private medical decisions without running a gauntlet of harassing and threatening protesters,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America in a statement. “We are taking a close look at this ruling, as well as patient protection laws around the country, to ensure that women can continue to make their own health care decisions without fear of harassment or intimidation.”

Susan Lowenstein-Kitchell, 87, of Amherst works with the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Mass., which provides financial assistance for women who can’t afford an abortion, and said she, too, was surprised by the unanimity of the decision.

“I really don’t understand it,” she said.

Lowenstein-Kitchell disagrees with the notion that many protesters are just trying to assist women and offering comfort and guidance.

“These aren’t helpful people,” she said. “They are just trying to talk women out of having an abortion.”

Lowenstein-Kitchell said any time Planned Parenthood is open there are protesters outside holding signs — some with gruesome photos of aborted fetuses — and yelling, “trying to scare people coming in.”

Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office argued before the justices to keep the 35-foot zone, said the ruling appeared to leave open other alternatives. Those include the return to an earlier 6-foot “floating” buffer zone that created a moving protest-free zone that encircled anyone entering a clinic. Coakley said that model was cumbersome because it wasn’t always clear where the line was.

“One of the reasons we moved from the floating buffer zone, as we explained to the court, was that it didn’t work very well,” said Coakley, a Democratic candidate for governor. “The floating zone just creates just much more uncertainty about what’s protected space and what isn’t.”

Walz said she had no quarrel with how Coakley and her team presented their case.

Evan Falchuk, a United Independent Party candidate for Massachusetts governor, released a statement saying he was concerned the law itself was “well-intentioned but hugely flawed,” and wouldn’t survive a constitutional challenge.

“My concern was that the court would write an opinion that would eliminate the future possibility of any buffer zones,” Falchuk said.

Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, said she expected lawmakers to act before the July 31 end of the legislative session, but would not speculate on what changes might be sought.

“Today’s ruling isn’t the end of the story,” Walz said “It can’t be.”

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.