After the U.S. Supreme Court today struck down a Massachusetts law that requires buffer zones around entrances to reproductive health clinics, Bay Area legislators and pro-choice advocates are looking into whether similar local laws will be impacted by the high court’s decision.
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that First Amendment free speech rights were being violated under Massachusetts’s 2007 law that keeps protesters 35 feet away from abortion clinics.
The decision stems from McCullen v. Coakley, a case out of Massachusetts in which anti-abortion advocates argued that they have the right to approach women entering clinics for “sidewalk counseling.”
The petitioners claimed that the 35-foot buffer zones have prevented them from their counseling efforts, impeding their First Amendment rights.
Heather Estes, president of the Bay Area-based Planned Parenthood Shasta Pacific office, which has offices in Concord & Walnut Creek, said there are seven cities in California, including San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, that have “buffer zone laws” to prevent harassment at abortion clinics.
Estes said the buffer zones were created to make women and other patients feel safe coming to the clinics for family planning and other health appointments.
“If we lose the buffer zone, it makes it harder to enforce the law” that keeps protesters away from patients, Estes said.
“Having this space, this separation, really helps clients feel like we’re not being followed to the door,” she said.
Estes said Planned Parenthood is still working to understand whether buffer zones in local cities will be impacted by today’s ruling.
“It’s important for us to continue to look at other regulations,” she said.
She said at San Francisco clinics, there is a yellow line painted by the city that forms a half circle around buildings.
“It’s a good thing to have a little bit of space,” Estes said, adding that protesters often carry large, graphic signs and can be loud in their designated space.
“Buffer zones are a respectful balance,” she said.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, who passed legislation making it a federal crime to use force, the threat of force or physical obstruction to prevent individuals from obtaining or providing reproductive health services, issued a statement about today’s court ruling.
“It is distressing that the Supreme Court struck down an important Massachusetts law that protected women from violence and intimidation, but it is still a crime to harm, threaten or obstruct women as they enter clinics,” Boxer said.
“Because the Supreme Court makes clear that women entering clinics have a right to be protected, I will work to find every possible tool to do just that,” she said.