Abortion foes get up close and personal after court erases buffer zones

Antiabortion protester Eleanor McCullen, left, was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that led the Supreme Court to abolish a 35-foot buffer zone in Massachusetts to keep protesters away from clients at abortion clinics.
(Steven Senne / Associated Press)
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The two women climb out of the car in front of Planned Parenthood on Commonwealth Avenue and Eleanor McCullen reaches them in two quick steps. She tries to hand them a white rose and a pamphlet about alternatives to abortion, and beseeches them to let her help.

“I can help with housing, medical — we work with St. Elizabeth’s, just down the road, and everything is free,” she says, walking with the women as they approach the door.

Just a week ago, McCullen could not have gotten this close to the women in Massachusetts because of a law passed in 2007 that required that protesters stay behind a 35-foot buffer zone around entrances to abortion clinics.


But the Supreme Court struck down that law on June 26, ruling unanimously that the buffer zone violated protesters’ 1st Amendment rights to free speech. McCullen, a cheery 77-year old grandmother who carries knit baby hats outside the clinic, was the lead plaintiff in the case.

Though the Supreme Court decision applied only to the Massachusetts law, advocates on both sides of the debate say it eventually could apply to a variety of ordinances across the country that are aimed at minimizing conflicts in some of the nation’s most contentious terrains.

New Hampshire last month approved a 25-foot buffer zone around its clinics, and cities including Sacramento, San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Portland, Maine, also have fixed-distance buffer zone laws in place.

Many other municipalities, including Los Angeles, require protesters to stay 8 feet away from patients who are within 100 feet of a clinic. Those laws also could be the next targeted by the antiabortion movement after last week’s decision.

“These bubble zones are susceptible to the reasoning in McCullen, but I think it will take litigation to take them down,” said Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League. “I’m sure they’re going to go down.”

Patients and staff at the Boston clinic say they have noticed a big difference since the buffer zone law was struck down.


On Wednesday, protesters walked with impunity over the yellow line that had been painted on the sidewalk after the 2007 law was passed. They sat in chairs and prayed, sang hymns, and offered to help anyone walking into the clinic, handing them fliers that pictured an ultrasound with the words, “How could I ever have thought of aborting this baby!”

The protesters largely ignored the volunteer escorts in vests helping women into the center and the three police officers standing on a corner nearby, who ignored them back.

“Good morning, Jesus loves you,” said Mary O’Donnell, an 82-year old woman carrying rosaries and pamphlets who arrived at the center at 7 a.m. to try and stop women from having abortions.

The Boston clinic has had fewer patients than normal since the Supreme Court decision came out and more skipped appointments, said Marty Walz, chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts.

“We have seen a significant difference since the law was struck down,” Walz said. “We now have protesters in larger numbers and much closer to our doorway, harassing our patients as they approach the health center.”

McCullen said she saw it as an opportunity to save lives. “If you see a baby crossing the tracks by himself, and there’s a train coming, you don’t say, ‘Oh, we don’t care, the mother must be close by.’ We would run across there. It’s something we do as human beings,” she said.


On Wednesday, Massachusetts state officials said they were working to come up with new measures to protect patients since the Supreme Court ruling.

Potential solutions include updating the state’s dispersal law, which allows police officers to order protesters to disperse if they are blocking access to a facility, and creating a state version of the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act that could be enforced locally and avoid the delays of a federal prosecution. The federal law prohibits the use of physical force or intimidation against people trying to enter a reproductive health clinic.

“While ... there is no one single law that can offer the same kind of comprehensive protection that the buffer zone did, we believe we can enhance a number of laws that, when combined together, can help provide safe access to these facilities,” Massachusetts Atty. Gen. Martha Coakley said at a news conference in the statehouse Wednesday.

Gov. Deval Patrick said he hoped to have “a fix” to the law on his desk by the end of the legislative session on July 31.

In its decision, the Supreme Court said it was possible to prohibit harassment while still protecting free speech, referring to a New York City ordinance that makes it a crime to follow another person within 15 feet of a clinic.

“The police appear perfectly capable of singling out lawbreakers,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in his opinion.


But previous “bubble” ordinances in Massachusetts didn’t work, said Walz of Planned Parenthood, who said protesters always found a way around them. She described a protester who used to stand outside a reproductive health clinic with a fire poker, shoving it in car windows to hand out literature.

The court “removed a law that worked,” she said. “In fact, it is the only thing that has ever worked to maintain public safety.”

Rebecca Leung, a 19-year old Northeastern University student, was approached by protesters as she went into the Boston Planned Parenthood clinic Wednesday for an appointment unrelated to abortion. She said she thought there should be a buffer zone, because the protesters made her feel uncomfortable.

“Everyone has the freedom to make their own choices,” she said. “When you walk in and feel harassed, it’s not a good feeling.”

But even if Massachusetts does make changes to its laws, McCullen isn’t likely to give up her routine of standing outside the Boston clinic on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. After all, she’s used to being rebuffed.

The two women she approached from the car politely declined her help and walked into the clinic. A young couple didn’t even acknowledge her. When she told another couple, on their way out of the clinic, that she was still there to help, they turned away.


She said she had helped prevent many women from having abortions — perhaps 20 a year. Sometimes, she said, they’ll ignore her but call her later to thank her for the literature they pretended to ignore.

“We’re not out to start trouble,” O’Donnell said. “All we’re trying to do is let women know that there’s another option. We’re trying to give them one last chance to think about it, to tell them it’s not too late.”