Why Abortion Clinics Need Buffer Zones

Protesters outside of an abortion clinic CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ROGELIO V. SOLIS
Protesters outside of an abortion clinic CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ROGELIO V. SOLIS

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in a case that could ultimately determine whether women across the country can maintain safe access to abortion clinics. Depending how the justices rule on McCullen v. Coakley, cities and states may no longer be allowed to enact buffer zones around reproductive health care facilities — a policy that abortion providers say is critical for ensuring the safety of their patients and staff, since protests outside of clinics often turn violent.

Earlier this week, the New York Times and the Associated Press both profiled Eleanor McCullen, the 77-year-old plaintiff in the legal challenge who has become the face of the current Supreme Court battle. McCullen says that buffer zones violate her free speech rights, and points out that she’s hardly a threat to women entering health facilities. “I am 5 feet 1 inch tall,” McCullen said in a filed statement for the case. “My body type can be described as ‘plump.’ I am a mother and grandmother.”

McCullen certainly provides a sympathetic figure for the anti-choice community’s position — that buffer zones prevent harmless protesters, mainly good-natured grandmothers, from peacefully striking up conversations outside of clinics. But members of the reproductive rights community say that’s a gross mischaracterization of what actually goes on at abortion clinics around the country.

“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.”


Vicki Saporta, the president of the National Abortion Federation (NAF), agrees. “If there were just peaceful protests taking place outside clinics — instead of the threats and obstruction and actual violence that is part of the daily life of clinic staff and patients — perhaps there would not be the need for a buffer zone,” she said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “But that isn’t the case.”

Indeed, the 35-foot buffer zone in Massachusetts that’s at the center of McCullen v. Coakley was first enacted in response to an act of gun violence that illustrates just how perilous working in this field can be. In 1994, a gunman dressed in black went on a shooting rampage at two abortion clinics in a suburban Boston area. Two clinic workers were killed, and five other people were injured.

NAF, a professional association of abortion providers, surveyed its members last September to ask them about clinic violence and patient safety. Over 90 percent of facilities reported that they were concerned about the safety of both patients and staff who needed to get in and out of their clinic. The results are somewhat unsurprising to Saporta, who is familiar with the type of incidents that abortion providers frequently report to her organization.

“What began as peaceful protests in the 1970s escalated to blockading clinic entrances, arsons and bombings, acid attacks, stalking and kidnapping doctors and their families, and even murdering reproductive health care staff,” Saporta explained. Her organization tracks incidences of clinic violence, and has recorded 8 murders, 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 181 arsons, and thousands of incidences of other criminal activities since 1977. By 2010, one out of every five reproductive healthcare facilities had been impacted by anti-abortion violence.

“There have been both patients and clinic staff who have been assaulted on their way into a reproductive health care facility. Their entrances has been blocked, they’ve been hit with signs, they’ve been surrounded,” Saporta recounted. “There was an incident that was reported to us where a patient called the clinic from her car — she was afraid to get out of her car because she was being swarmed by very aggressive protesters screaming at her. The clinic sent out two people to help her access the clinic. The protesters followed them and one barged his way in, still screaming at the patient.”


In the same survey, NAF also asked its members about the impact of buffer zones, which have become an increasingly popular response to issues of harassment near clinics. Fifty one percent of facilities in areas that had enacted buffer zones reported a decrease in criminal facility after the zone was put in place, and 75 percent of them said it helped improve patients’ and staff members’ ability to access the clinic.

“This is the only law that’s ever worked to allow law enforcement to maintain public safety at our health centers,” Marty Walz, the CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, told MSNBC’s Irin Carmon this week. Walz was one of the lead sponsors of the buffer zone law when she served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

In Massachusetts, the effort to create a buffer zone around clinics has won support outside of abortion rights advocates, too. Local law enforcement officials have come out in favor of the policy, and Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) has been advocating for the law since 2007. Even some anti-choice members of the Catholic Church have suggested that protests outside of clinics too often lead to violence and should be halted. The Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, called for a moratorium on protests in the aftermath of the 1994 shootings.

“You don’t need to be a pro-choice feminist to believe that crowds of protesters outside of clinics make for a volatile situation. Even an anti-choice Catholic Archbishop can see it,” Kinsey Bruns pointed out. “And you don’t need to have a political agenda to believe that clinic protesters can be dangerous. You’ve only got to look to history.”

NAF and Planned Parenthood, along with 30 other organizations committed to maintaining safe access to reproductive health facilities, have filed an amicus brief urging the nation’s highest court to uphold Massachusetts law. They argue that the well-documented history of clinic violence compels the government to take measures to protect individuals from harm, and point out that protesters still have ample opportunity to exercise their First Amendment rights outside of the buffer zone. Similar zones have been created around some polling places and churches.

“It takes seven seconds to walk through a 35-foot buffer zone. It’s a very small area around a clinic entrance,” Saporta told ThinkProgress. “All the space around the clinic, all sides of that buffer zone, protesters can exercise their free speech rights and talk to whoever they choose. I’m surprised that anyone would think that a buffer zone is not an excellent solution to the decades-long problem of threats and violence taking place outside of clinics.”