BY SARAH ALLISON
On Wednesday, Jan.15, the Supreme Court heard a case regarding a Massachusetts law on abortion clinic buffer zones. The law, enacted in 2007, allows for a 35-foot buffer zone spreading out on all sides of an abortion clinic. The justices’ opinions currently seem to be split.
In Massachusetts, a painted yellow line marks the buffer zone. This space may include parts of the public sidewalk. Only people from pro-life groups are forbidden from entering, while everyone else may use the sidewalk freely.
Eleanor McCullen, a 77-year-old sidewalk counselor and the main plaintiff, brought the case on the grounds that the law violates the right to free speech. The buffer zone creates a bubble around the abortion clinic in which only the pro-choice point of view may be heard.
At this time, buffer zones may vary from place to place. Pennsylvania, for instance, has no statewide buffer zone. While the case is exciting for the pro-life movement, the outcome could affect the movement either way – the Supreme Court could strike down the law entirely or set a maximum buffer zone for every state.
Supporters of the Massachusetts law have compared it to the buffer zones around polling places, which are much larger and prevent people from soliciting voters. The clinic buffer zone is intended to prevent violence, harassment or obstruction of clinic entrances. It also prevents pro-lifers such as McCullen from counseling to women.
Jenna Leighton, a senior at Franciscan University of Steubenville and president of the university’s Students for Life club, said that the 35-foot buffer zone was “a ridiculous amount” and “a huge bubble.”
In 2000, a different set of justices of the Supreme Court upheld a Colorado law that allowed for buffer zones as wide as 100 feet. The Colorado law also gave a “floating” eight-foot buffer zone to women visiting the clinic.
Lauren Kleckner, also a senior and the director of Franciscan’s abortion clinic outreach, lent some context to the 35-foot law. Many Franciscan students travel weekly to Pittsburgh to pray outside the Allegheny Reproductive Health Center, which has a buffer zone of only 15 feet. Kleckner said, “Fifteen feet extends over the whole sidewalk and out into the street.”
The 15-foot buffer zone applies not just to the Allegheny abortion clinic but also to other clinics across the city of Pittsburgh. The same rule is in effect for the Planned Parenthood in Pittsburgh, which the outreach visits on Good Friday.
In addition to the buffer zones, abortion clinic escorts in Pittsburgh can use different approaches to distract patients from any pro-life groups that may be present. One such tactic is playing loud music.
“A few years ago, the escorts would carry a shovel and drag it behind them in the snow,” added Leighton. The noise of the shovel, like the music, was intended to drown out anything that nearby pro-lifers might say.