Under Attack: Buffer Zones Around Abortion Clinics


Now that the Supreme Court has struck down the law upholding 35-foot buffer zones around abortion clinics in Massachusetts, similar buffer-zone laws in Maine, Vermont, Wisconsin and New Hampshire have quickly been rescinded or put on hold, leaving clinic staff and patients vulnerable to harassment and potential violence.

Portland, Maine, repealed its 39-foot buffer zone ordinance Monday, while city officials in Burlington, Vt., announced a similar 35-foot buffer zone ordinance will no longer be enforced. Burlington has also dropped a case against Molly Jesse, who was fined for parking a car adorned with anti-choice signs in a handicapped spot within the buffer zone. While they will not enforce the buffer zone, police in Burlington say they will continue to regulate actions that “knowingly obstruct, detain, hinder, impede or block” those trying to access reproductive health care.

That is hardly reassuring to clinic staff or women accosted by protesters as they arrive for a doctor’s appointment. Both the National Abortion Federation (NAF) and the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) have found that buffer zones reduce violence and threats targeted at clinics, and the removal of buffer zones “emboldens more extreme violence, harassment and intimidation of women and health-care providers in the name of free speech,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of FMF (and publisher of Ms.).

The fate of other buffer zones remains unclear. In early June, before the Supreme Court ruling, Gov. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) signed into law a 25-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics in response to the state’s history of violence against them—including arson attacks in 1999 and 2000 and more recent reports of protestors congregating around and impeding access to a clinic. But a lawsuit filed with the U.S. District Court in New Hampshire on Monday is asking for the law to be enjoined pending review.

The 15-foot buffer zone ordinance in Pittsburg, Penn., and the 25-foot buffer zone ordinance in San Francisco remain standing.

The Supreme Court’s ruling is also endangering buffer zones that were not declared unconstitutional and have been consistently upheld by the court. Officials in Madison, Wisc., will stop enforcing their floating buffer zone, which prevents protesters from approaching within 8 feet of an individual trying to access a clinic, except with the person’s consent. Officials in Madison say the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCullen v. Coakley suggests their own law may be unconstitutional as well. However, a similar floating buffer zone law in Colorado was upheld by the court in Hill v. Colorado and again in McCullen v. Coakley, pointing to the dangerous possibility that the recent buffer-zone ruling will be applied too broadly.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick and Attorney Gen. Martha Coakley are considering updating ordinances that allow police to disperse unruly crowds, and instituting new ordinances that outlaw the obstruction of sidewalks and driveways and that increase the attorney general’s power to bring injunctions against clinic protesters. The Massachusetts Citizens for Life, an anti-abortion group, responded with a letter to state legislators stating such ordinances will likely “lead to more litigation” and urging lawmakers to “think carefully as to whether or not the latest version will pass constitutional muster.”

Volunteer escorts at the Boston Planned Parenthood clinic and elsewhere have decided to increase the amount of time they spend at local clinics in light of recent rulings. If you want to join in the effort to protect reproductive rights, you can adopt a clinic through FMF’s Feminist Campus. Adopt-a-Clinic participants speak with representatives from local clinics to determine the support they need, which may include documenting the protesters’ efforts, raising public awareness about protesters and escorting patients into the clinic. NAF also suggests ways to participate in local pro-choice activities, including fundraising for local clinics or babysitting the children of patients.

Photo of clinic escorts in Minnesota, courtesy of Brianne via Flickr Creative Commons


Margaret Nickens is a senior at Brown University and an intern with Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.