Supreme Court Just Made Getting an Abortion More Dangerous for Women


"The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a Massachusetts law that mandates a protective buffer zone around abortion clinics to allow patients unimpeded access," according to Reuters.

The newswire continued: "On a 9-0 vote, the court said the 2007 law violated the freedom of speech rights of anti-abortion protesters under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by preventing them from standing on the sidewalk and speaking to people entering the clinics." Chief Justice John Roberts said that authorities have less intrusive ways to deal with those potential problems.

The ruling will have substantial ramifications for women seeking medical assistance at abortion clinics. Buffer zones have been essential for keeping protesters from intimidating or harrasing women. "Despite the 35-foot barrier, I have to walk through the protesters to get to the front door," an abortion counselor told Slate's Amanda Marcotte when the court heard oral arguments for the case in January. "Each time I walk to work, no matter how many times I have done it, my heart starts pounding when I see them. I'm worried that dangerous situations in other parts of the country will become life-threatening if buffer zones are taken away."

Some of the individuals who stand outside Massachu­setts abortion clinics are fairly described as protestors, who express their moral or religious opposition to abortion through signs and chants or, in some cases, more aggres­sive methods such as face-to-face confrontation. Petition­ers take a different tack. They attempt to engage women approaching the clinics in what they call “sidewalk coun­seling,” which involves offering information about alterna­tives to abortion and help pursuing those options. Petitioner Eleanor McCullen, for instance, will typically initiate a conversation this way: “Good morning, may I give you my literature? Is there anything I can do for you?"

But for those worried about an upswing in harrasement at abortion clinics, don't despair: according to SCOTUSblog, this ruling is relatively narrow. State governments can still pass laws that protect access to clinics and cut down on emotional (and physical) abuse of women seeking medical assistance, they just can't prohibit speech on public sidewalks. "The buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s asserted interests," wrote Chief Justice Robert's opinion reads. So while buffer zones like the ones at the heart of this case may be out of the question, abortion clinics can still look into other options to keep women safe.

SCOTUS Decision: McCullen v. Coakley

This story has been updated.

Editor's Note: Feb. 24, 2015

An earlier version of this article failed to cite or link to a passage from Reuters in accordance with Mic editorial standards. The article has been updated to properly attribute the language to Reuters.