Reaction To Ruling On Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones | KUOW News and Information

Reaction To Ruling On Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones

Jun 26, 2014
Originally published on June 26, 2014 11:23 am

The Supreme Court has struck down a Massachusetts law that established a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics, saying it violates the free speech provision of the First Amendment.

Judy Waxman of the non-profit National Women’s Law Center discusses her reaction to the ruling with Here & Now’s Robin Young.


  • Judy Waxman, vice president of health and reproductive rights at the National Women’s Law Center.
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And for more on the buffer zone ruling, let's bring in Judy Waxman. She's the vice president for health and reproductive rights at the nonprofit National Women's Law Center. Judy, welcome.


YOUNG: And your reaction?

WAXMAN: We're very disappointed about this case. I think your listeners know what actually happened in Massachusetts. It is true that the person who brought the case said she just wanted to hand out pamphlets and gently talk to people, but of course there have been killings and shootings and all sorts of other violence going on at this particular clinic.

YOUNG: Well, let's be specific. This 2007 Massachusetts law - again, establishing a 35-foot buffer zone around the entrances to clinics in the state - evolved out of a horrendous incident. A gunman who killed two receptionists and wounded five volunteers at clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts. But as you well know, today Chief Justice John Roberts said that the state - as we just heard, it's not an absolute ruling. It's a ruling that seemed to leave wiggle room for the state to come up with what Chief Justice Roberts called better laws. He pointed out that, for instance, most of the problems that are happening today or happening at one Planned Parenthood in Boston on Saturdays when the largest crowds typically gather. He said for a problem shown to arise only once a week in one city at one clinic, creating 35-foot buffer zones at every clinic across the state is not a narrowly tailored solution. Is that opening the door for the state and people like yourself who want this kind of a protection to go back and come up with better ideas?

WAXMAN: Well, it opens up two doors. I think one - and I don't - I wouldn't use the word better necessarily because I think the people at that particular clinic felt that the 35-foot zone was there to protect them. Without that, of course there are other things states could do. Other - but I'm not sure that the people at that clinic would think it was quite as effective as what they had. The other thing I will say is the ruling was specific to Massachusetts, and there are other states that do have different kinds of buffer zones, and the case did not address them. So it leaves the door open as to whether or not the other states that have buffer zones will be able to keep them.

YOUNG: Yeah. The court also said that, for instance, the obstruction of a clinic driveway could be addressed through traffic ordinances. It said the state could enact a law requiring people to disperse for just a limited time when too many people gather and they block the clinic entrances - so again, calling for a less broad-stroke law. Meanwhile, do you think the law that was put in place in Massachusetts has been effective? Can you point to less violence and less confrontation?

WAXMAN: Well I'm not in Massachusetts. You would have to ask the people at that particular clinic. But of course the court made all sorts of presumptions about what the police could do, but in fact they didn't do that a number of years ago, as you mentioned. And again, the clinic staff felt like - I am sure - in order to feel protection for themselves and for their patients they needed this zone. Now that it has been struck down, we of course look to the state to come up with new solutions and for the federal government that also has authority over protecting patients to step up to the plate as well.

YOUNG: Well, in fact, you say ask people in the state, and Naral, the pro-choice group here in Massachusetts, has released a statement saying that they do believe that the buffer zone has prevented violence in clinics. After it was passed here in Massachusetts, they say Massachusetts saw a decrease in instances of violence and harassment while it rose in the rest of the country between 2007 and '12. There have been eight reported arsons, 41 incidents of assault and battery, more than 200 acts of vandalism, 37 bomb threats, 41 death threats, 81 suspicious packages, 50 reports of staff and patients being stalked and 30 facility blockades. That's according to NARAL across the country in states that don't have this kind of protection. Meanwhile, you know, you look at this through the prism of law. A lot of people have a hard time understanding the court's decision upholding freedom of speech over a right to privacy - your thoughts on that?

WAXMAN: Well, I think we obviously all believe in freedom of speech. And - but you can talk loudly across a number of feet without actually doing harm to somebody you're trying to talk to. So it really is a question of whether these protesters really just want to talk - want to hand out pamphlets as they said or whether they were yelling in somebody's face, holding signs close to the patients and also going over the line, I would say, in threatening violence or even in acting violently. So the court's decision sounds very much like, well, all they really want to do is talk, and so they have to be allowed to do that. I think it was really beyond just talking that was the real problem.

YOUNG: Judy Waxman, vice president from health and reproductive rights at the nonprofit National Women's Law Center on today's Supreme Court unanimous decision striking down the 35-foot protest-free zone outside abortion clinics in Massachusetts, and seeming to say to the state, come back with a better idea. Judy, thank you.

WAXMAN: Thank you.

YOUNG: This is here and now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.