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U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Massachusetts Abortion Clinic Buffer Zone Law

EDITORIAL NOTE: This guest blog post was writteb by Anne Borg, Co-President, League of Women Voters of Massachusetts

The League of Women Voters of Massachusetts (LWVMA) is disappointed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26, 2014, decision in McCullen v. Coakley that the Massachusetts buffer zone law, as written, is unconstitutional. The Massachusetts League joined an amicus brief in this case, with 31 other organizations, urging the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the buffer zone law.

The Court’s decision severely compromises the right of women to access reproductive health services without the threat of fear, intimidation or physical harm. It puts thousands of women and healthcare providers at greater risk. According to the Boston Globe, the decision has already had an intimidating effect on women accessing services at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston. Over 70 anti-abortion protesters gathered at the clinic on the Saturday following the decision.

The 2007 Massachusetts law established a fixed, 35-foot, content-neutral buffer zone in front of the entrance to reproductive health facilities. This law replaced a previous “floating” or “bubble” buffer zone law, passed in 2000, that clinic and Massachusetts law enforcement officials had deemed inadequate. The original 2000 law was passed in response to increasing threats and violence at Massachusetts reproductive health clinics, including the murder of two Boston-area clinic employees in 1994.

In its decision, five of the justices reasoned that the Massachusetts buffer zone law did not regulate content, and agreed that protecting patients and maintaining order outside reproductive health clinics are legitimate state interests. But these five justices did find that the 35-foot buffer zone was too restrictive of First Amendment-protected speech, and said that there are other solutions available. We had disagreed with this premise in our amicus to the Court: “The Act, by carving out a limited amount of space around the facility, provides Petitioners ample alternative means to communicate their message, satisfying [the] Court’s First Amendment precedents.”

The League of Women Voters of Massachusetts has had a position on reproductive choice since 1972 that states that abortion is a medical matter to be decided by the patient and doctor and should not be limited by law. In 1978, LWVMA’s position was expanded to include support for public funding of birth control and abortion services. The 1983 LWVUS position on reproductive choice was derived from the Massachusetts League’s position.

Since the 1970’s, the Massachusetts League has advocated for legislation that supports a woman’s right to make personal reproductive choices; and against legislation, including human life amendments, which attempt to restrict choice. During this time, LWVMA joined several amicus briefs in support of reproductive choice, and was a co-plaintiff with Planned Parenthood in a successful 1989 case against Operation Rescue for physically blocking abortion clinics.

LWVMA supported both the 2000 and 2007 Massachusetts buffer laws, and is heartened that Massachusetts political leaders have expressed a commitment to passing legislation that will protect all women seeking any services at these clinics while also meeting the Court’s constitutional requirements. We need to be more vigilant than ever in preserving women's rights to safe access to birth control and abortion, and the League at all levels will continue to advocate for measures that provide such safe access.

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