In McCullen v. Martha Coakley, the Supreme Court takes on the issue of Massachusetts’ buffer zone laws around abortion clinics, and whether such buffer zones restrict protesters’ First Amendment rights. While a ruling hasn’t been handed down yet, the decision promises to affect the landscape of women’s rights.
Eleanor McCullen, the petitioner, is an anti-choice protestor who feels that her First Amendment rights have been violated since her message cannot be effectively delivered due to the enforced 35-foot buffer zone around clinics. Officially, she is suing Martha Coakley, attorney general for Massachusetts.
The precedent for such buffer zones came from a previous Supreme Court ruling a decade ago in a Colorado case which upheld the legality of eight-foot “floating” buffer zones around patients and staff entering clinics.
The petitioner’s lawyer, Mark Rienzi, and Justice Scalia insist the protestors are there to counsel and hold “consensual conversations” with patients. However, those “consensual” conversations are usually anything but that. Protestors in New York have displayed posters of supposedly aborted fetuses, shouting “baby killer,” and surrounding patients so that they couldn’t enter the clinic. Even the Massachusetts police testified that prior to the buffer zone law, they couldn’t tell who was who in the chaos after a gunman shot two Planned Parenthood staff members in 1994. Since 1995, there have been over 4,700 incidents of clinic violence and 140 clinic blockades, none of which can be categorized as “consensual conversation.”
The concept of buffer zones is not limited to clinics but has been extended to other controversial places. Deputy Solicitor General Ian H. Gershengorn noted that “there are buffer zones around political conventions, around circuses, around funerals” and that smaller buffer zones have been in place before with little effect. Polling places have a 150-foot buffer zone that protestors and those handing out literature have to respect. Ironically, Marty Walz points out that the US Supreme Court has its own buffer zone, which bans all demonstrations and picketing on its plaza, forcing protestors to the adjacent public sidewalk.
This debate is taking place within the larger context of the fight for reproductive justice, which is defined by Protect Choice as “the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social, and economic well-being of women and girls, based on the full achievement and protection of women’s human rights.”
Recently many anti-choice efforts have been gaining ground with support from conservative policy makers such as Virginia Senator Steve Martin, who responded to a note from pro-choice supporters with the following: “I don’t expect to be in the room or will I do anything to prevent you from obtaining a contraceptive. 
However, once a child does exist in your womb, I’m not going to assume a right to kill it just because the child’s host (some refer to them as mothers) doesn’t want it.”
As women continue to be dehumanized and denied access to reproductive healthcare, the result is more rigid restrictions on bodily autonomy and sustained attacks on women’s self-determination.  Hopefully, the Supreme Court will uphold the provisions necessary to ensure adequate health care access to everyone.
N.B.: According to protectchoice.org, the term “anti-choice” is defined as “a political position that opposes a woman’s right to choose to continue or terminate a pregnancy and to obtain safe and legal abortion services.”