For months, I’ve been talking to fellow pro-choice activists in New York City about whether we could get a buffer zone passed here. There was a pretty solid consensus: we could do this, but we should wait for a decision on McCullen vs. Coakley, the Supreme Court case looking at Massachusetts’s 35 foot buffer zone protecting clinics that provide abortion services.
Today, we got the decision on McCullen, and the Supreme Court dashed my hopes and dreams. The decision, written by Chief Justice Roberts, deemed the Massachusetts law unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Roberts states that the “petitioners are not protestors,” accepting their self-definition as “sidewalk counselors.” As Ashley Gray wrote here on sherights, so-called sidewalk counselors take aggressive actions to reach patients, and do not accept “please leave me alone” as an answer. Counseling requires consent. As shown by an unfortunate wealth of stories on Twitter, anti-choice protesters are not counseling.
If this Supreme Court ruling proves anything, it’s that a sympathetic plaintiff can make your case. Eleanor McCullen is 77 years old, and was constantly portrayed as a kind, sweet, gentle grandmother. While the plaintiff may prefer to have “kind, hopeful discussions with women who feel they have nowhere else to turn,” as she said in a statement today, she is not representative of the average clinic protester. And I’m not sure why Mrs. McCullen thinks that patients have nowhere else to turn: clinics provide full pregnancy options counseling before abortions.
In my own experiences as a clinic escort in New York City, guiding patients past protesters to the clinic’s front door, I’ve seen anti-choice protesters block sidewalks – a particularly easy task this winter, when piles of snow cut the walkable path in half – so that patients walking up to the clinic are unable to pass, and instead must talk to the protesters. I’ve watched as protesters shoved my fellow escort into a wall to get closer to a patient. I’ve walked behind a patient’s toddler, because I was afraid that a particularly aggressive protester would trample the child in an attempt to get to her mother. I have yet to see any protester engage in “personal, caring, consensual conversation,” as the Court describes these encounters, in over a year and a half of escorting.
Equally disturbing, from my perspective, is the Court’s focus on public sidewalks. While it’s true that many clinics have private parking lots and private walkways that create ad-hoc buffer zones to protect patients, the Planned Parenthood in Boston, where Mrs. McCullen protests, faces the sidewalk, as does the clinic where I escort in New York City. For the many clinics that face the sidewalk, buffer zones are the only possible solution to keep the entrance clear for patients. Protesters at my clinic stand as close to the door as they can manage, and there’s no doubt that Mrs. McCullen will begin to do the same today.
The Court’s decision also states that clinics ought to use other options available to them to protect patient safety, such as calling the police for traffic and Federal Access to Clinic Entrances Act violations. In a statement from Physicians for Reproductive Health, board chair Nancy L. Stanwood noted that “in a recent national survey of abortion providers … over 80 percent of facilities have called law enforcement because of safety, access, or criminal activity concerns.” Calling the police isn’t a new thing for clinic staff and volunteers. But when the community affairs officers from our precinct visit my clinic on Saturday mornings, they spend more time ensuring that no one is impeding the protesters then ensuring patients have access to the clinic.
In the end, Ilyse Hogue, President of NARAL Pro-Choice America, may have put it most succinctly: “today’s decision puts women and health care providers at greater risk.” Without the option of implementing buffer zones to keep our patients safe, what are we supposed to do?
About the author: Rachel Goldfarb has been a feminist since birth, but her mother might regret that after hearing stories about her work as a clinic escort. When she’s not doing feminist activism, Rachel works in communications at a progressive policy organization. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelG8489.
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It’s important to share all of these stories so people realize that it’s not just polite grandmothers gently talking to women at clinics. Hopefully there are other models for buffer zones that aren’t specific to abortion clinics that can be passed and will be considered constitutional.
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