Keep Buffer Zones Around Abortion Clinics Intact

UltrasoundIn 1973, the US Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide and affirmed a woman’s right to have control over her own body. And ever since then, conservative opponents have been doing their utmost to chip away at Roe v Wade.

Now, on the 41st anniversary of the landmark case, it’s under attack more than ever.

So, if you’re new here, it’s time for a disclaimer. I’m a man. And while I understand a man giving his opinion about abortion is about as popular as men talking about the trials and tribulations of childbirth, the issue I’m focusing on today is a Massachusetts case currently in front of the Supreme Court. A case involving the legality of a 35-foot buffer zone in front of all clinics, that keeps anti-choice protesters at bay.

And that is something with which I’m all too familiar.

The crux of this lawsuit is a bunch of anti-choice protesters feel the 35-foot buffer zone — created in 2007 after acts of violence by “pro-life” people including a shooting in a Boston abortion clinic — infringe on their freedom of speech.

Eleanor McCullen, the lead petitioner in the case, told the Boston Globe the buffer zone has prevented her from “helping” mothers and fathers who supposedly need her counseling, saying “I’m impeded from my message, my message of love and my message of help. And one person I’ve lost, one mother, and one father, is one too many.”

But McCullen is wrong. I don’t say that as an opinion, I say it as an unmitigated fact.

As many of you know, MJ and I went for an abortion in a Boston-area clinic in 2010. Our baby had a rare congenital deformity called Sirenomelia, and because of that our doctors said there was no chance of our baby living. Because the hospital couldn’t get us in for the procedure until we were at 18 weeks, that meant we had a 50% chance of my wife having to deliver a stillborn. After much heartache and debate, we decided to opt for an abortion because delivering our dead baby was simply too much pain on top of pain.

And that’s when we met the protesters.

Because of the buffer zone, they were across a busy Brookline street. But as we exited the car and made our way toward the clinic entrance, we saw them. And most devastatingly, we heard them. Their signs are unmistakable — huge posterboards with pictures of fetuses and one of Jesus Christ (because He would really be into berating perfect strangers, right?) — but their shouts are the barbs that tear at your skin and rip at your soul.


People like McCullen would have you believe their freedom of speech is being limited. But I’m here to tell you, it is not.

Those two women were very free with their speech, and we heard them loud and clear. We heard them despite the 35-foot buffer zone. We heard them above the din of the city. We heard them over the noise of traffic on busy Harvard Avenue. On the worst day of our lives and at our lowest and saddest point, we heard them.

Their 1st Amendment rights were flourishing and their message was received. It was met with my wife simply falling apart and breaking down once inside the clinic, made worse by the fact that I’m not allowed in the operating room with her so she had to go off to surgery completely alone while screaming in agony.

And then I exercised my own 1st amendment rights by confronting these cowards outside the clinic.

You’ve got to love the hypocrisy of the woman on the right threatening to call the police on me, despite the fact that I’m on a public sidewalk expressing my own free speech rights in a nonviolent manner.

The point is these buffer zones are important and necessary. They allow people to get to the building where they need medical assistance, while still allowing these zealots their right to free speech. And remember, the protesters have no idea whether or not women are going in for an abortion or just for birth control pills. And because they don’t know, they simply scream the same rhetoric at everyone.

These were two old ladies yelling at me, but I’m not ashamed to admit I was intimidated at first. The shock of perfect strangers calling you a killer despite knowing NOTHING about our circumstances — all while holding huge and disgusting signs — is pretty scary. And if you’re just going in for birth control pills, I imagine it’s even more jarring and frightening. Now imagine no buffer zone. That means these lunatics will be on you and in your face from the moment you step out of your car.

Striking down the buffer zone law will lead to more violence in front of clinics. It will lead to more acrimony and scuffles. And, most importantly, it will lead to increased heartbreak for women making a personal and difficult choice — a choice that has NOTHING to do with religious protesters with nothing better to do with their time.

The Supreme Court has an opportunity to simultaneously preserve free speech, common sense, and a little decency by upholding the buffer zone law. It is my sincere hope the future allows women to make personal and difficult choices without having to deal with these horrid protesters accosting them face-to-face.

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8 thoughts on “Keep Buffer Zones Around Abortion Clinics Intact

  1. I was always against abortions until I heard you and MJ’s story. It just never occurred to me that a woman wound need to have an abortion for medical reasons such as this. I just assumed when a woman wanted an abortion it was just because she didn’t want to be bothered with a baby and everything that came with it. Even though I didn’t approve of abortions, you would NEVER find me harassing someone on the street for getting one no matter why they were doing it.

    These people need to protest in front of drug dealers houses and scream at the addicts to change their ways.
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  2. I would be shocked of they leave it stand. They may place a limit on blocking the walkway or on touching patients in any way, but the 35 foot setback seems pretty clearly unconstitutional. That they are jerks or that they hurt feelings says a ton about the protesters but is irrelevant to the 1st amendment discussion.
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  3. Remember, the 35 foot set back applies to public property and spaces. Private property doesn’t need a set back because the owner can throw the protestors of the premises. I can’t see SCOTUS saying “yeah, go ahead and put place restrictions on this one type of speech on public land. ”
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  4. Why? Because those restrictions you mention are not speech specific. You can legally say “all those wishing to protest must get a permit” or “all those wishing to speak must protest between 10 and 2” or “all those wishing to protest must not block traffic.”

    What SCOTUS (and yes even, and especially, the liberal justices) clearly has a problem with is when you say “all those wishing to espouse this specific viewpoint must comply with these special rules, which won’t apply to any other speaking group.” You can say everyone must get a permit; what you can’t do is say “Civil Rights protestors must comply with special rules, because there has been violence in the past.”

    Make no mistake: there is a serious 1st A violation here, regardless of your opinion on abortion. That violation is probably going to rile up at least 1 or 2 and maybe even 3 liberal justices, and that makes it an impossible law to uphold, IMO.

    But I’m a pretty big supporter of the 1st. I believe more speech and more information and knowledge is better and that the curve of the universe is toward justice.
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  5. Bryan: As a former journalist I’m an avid 1st amendment supporter. I’ve defended the rights of the idiotic Westboro Baptist Church to demonstrate. But these people are not having their free speech limited. They’re not being told to be quiet or go home. They are being heard. Believe me. Loud and clear. There is no infringement here nor is the government trying to dictate what they can and can’t say.

    The buffer zone allows for free speech AND public safety.

  6. Not sure how I feel about this.

    Yes, those people were protesting the abortion clinic, and I guess that’s their right.

    But you came off really irrational and seemed to be escalating the situation when you should have just ignored them. I think your decisions in this case were perhaps poorly made because of how emotional you were.

  7. Greg: What was irrational? I didn’t yell at them or swear at them. I challenged their awfulness with legitimate questions and common sense. And they had no response.

    The situation can’t get much more escalated when they’ve called my wife a murderer and made her cry.
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