Just before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments over a law designed to protect workers and patients at women's health clinics, the Wall Street Journal ignored the history of murder and violence women have faced at the hands of anti-choice activists, instead claiming that the law's "sole purpose" was to criminalize "peaceful" protests.
On January 15, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in McCullen v. Coakley, a challenge which could invalidate a 2007 Massachusetts law that created 35-foot "buffer zones" around local reproductive health center entrances. The law was designed as a response to public safety concerns after patients and staff at Massachusetts clinics faced a pattern of intimidation, harassment, and extreme violence from protestors -- including a fatal shooting of two women.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board's January 14 preview of the Supreme Court arguments did not mention violence once. Instead, the editorial repeatedly characterized anti-choice protesters as "peaceful," framing the law as simply a "chance to advance free speech" and ignored the events leading up to the law's passage to claim that the "real purpose of the state's abortion buffer zones is to limit, and criminalize, peaceful political speech."
But as the Boston Globe's Renée Loth explained, the implementation of Massachusetts' buffer zones law has helped dramatically reduce the level of intimidation that patients entering the clinics are forced to endure (emphasis added):
I was struck by the contrast to the common scene outside the health center in past decades, when antiabortion zealots screamed, chanted, blocked the doors, grabbed at women trying to enter, and photographed license plates. It was a time when women's health centers offering abortions were routinely bombed, burned, or doused with butyric acid. When staffers received letters purporting to contain anthrax. When John Salvi shot and killed two women and injured five others at two women's health centers in Brookline.
What's changed, according to many advocates, is the adoption of the Massachusetts buffer zone law, which creates a protected area for patients and employees a fixed 35 feet from the entrances to health centers. The law achieves a delicate balance between the free speech rights of abortion protesters and the rights of women to safely access the center. "It's a very peaceful coexistence," said Martha Walz, president of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and a coauthor of the 2007 law. "We no longer have that in-your-face harassment. The tension levels are way down. The law is working for everybody."
The violence Loth cites included the infamous Brookline murders of 1994, when two receptionists were killed in a shooting by an anti-choice activist at a Boston-area clinic. The shooter was convicted on five additional counts of attempted murder "in the wounding of five other people."
Such public safety concerns remain a pressing issue nationwide. In fact, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called anti-choice violence "America's [f]orgotten [t]errorism" in 2012, emphasizing that buffer zones are necessary because patients and doctors at health facilities that offer abortion services remain targets of violent attacks "from murders to arsons to bombings."
As the First Circuit United States Court of Appeals noted during its previous consideration of the Massachusetts law, "the right of the state to take reasonable steps to ensure the safe passage of persons wishing to enter healthcare facilities cannot seriously be questioned." The court recognized that the law places some restrictions on speech by moving protestors away from the entrances and farther down the public sidewalk, but emphasized the fact that "a diminution in the amount of speech, in and of itself, does not translate into unconstitutionality":
This case does not come to us as a stranger. At the turn of the century, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law that created fixed and floating buffer zones around abortion clinics. We rejected serial challenges to the constitutionality of that law.
The plaintiffs again appeal. They advance a salmagundi of arguments, old and new, some of which are couched in a creative recalibration of First Amendment principles.
Few subjects have proven more controversial in modern times than the issue of abortion. The nation is sharply divided about the morality of the practice and its place in a caring society. But the right of the state to take reasonable steps to ensure the safe passage of persons wishing to enter healthcare facilities cannot seriously be questioned. The Massachusetts statute at issue here is a content-neutral, narrowly tailored time-place-manner regulation that protects the rights of prospective patients and clinic employees without offending the First Amendment rights of others.
In the context of abortion-related demonstrations, the Supreme Court has specifically recognized the interest of clinic patients [in the 2000 case of Hill v. Colorado] both "in avoiding unwanted communication" and "pass[ing] without obstruction." Consistent with this interest, the First Amendment does not compel prospective patients seeking to enter an abortion clinic to make any special effort to expose themselves to the cacophony of political protests. Nor does it guarantee to the plaintiffs the same quantum of communication that would exist in the total absence of regulation. A diminution in the amount of speech, in and of itself, does not translate into unconstitutionality. So long as adequate alternative means of communication exist, no more is constitutionally exigible.
The Supreme Court's decision on McCullen v. Coakley could have a significant impact on women's access to reproductive care nationwide, creating a ripple effect that could impede other states' efforts to maintain the safety of women seeking medical aid. At ThinkProgress, Robin Marty reported on the type of harassment that patients would increasingly face:
Without a buffer zone to protect patients, someone entering the clinic can be trailed from the moment a car door is opened to the moment the person enters the building. Just as bad, they can be followed closely from the moment they pass through the clinic doors until they are safely back inside the car.
Ultimately, if the Supreme Court strikes down the buffer zone in McCullen v. Coakley, every clinic sidewalk could potentially turn into the sidewalk in Louisville, where anti-abortion protesters can openly chase clinic patients, "exorcise" escorts, and block doors -- not with the metal or even human chains they used in the nineties, but with the emotional force of 100 bodies lining the street, shouting that you are a murderer.
That type of "freedom of speech" won't just be condoned; it will be actively encouraged at every clinic in every state in the country. The freedom to determine if you choose to carry a pregnancy to term, however? That could become a thing of the past.