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Buffer Zone Clutter

Everyone is still waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to hand down their decision on marriage equality.  I am as well, but I admit to already having an eye on the court's next term.  The justices announced today that they will take up the case of McCullen vs. Coakley, which is a challenge to the Massachusetts Buffer Zone law next session.  This is disturbing news and will likely lead to another direct attack on the right to privacy by the court.

The current buffer zone law , which passed in 2007, established a 35-foot radius around the entrances and driveways of Massachusetts reproductive health clinics, in which only clinic staff are allowed to stand in while in performance of their job duties.  People may still travel through the zone on their way down the sidewalk to another location, or on their way in or out of a health center, but others must stand outside the clearly defined zone at this reasonable distance.

This statute was designed to replace the completely ineffective previous version of the law that created a smaller zone of 18 feet.  However, protesters could be inside that zone as long as they stayed at least six feet away from people trying to enter or exit a clinic.   That "bubble zone" turned out to be meaningless because they could ignore it if they had a person's "consent" to speak to them.  The problem was even worse though, because the law didn't define "consent" and protesters could stand right in the doorway and take eye contact as permission to verbally intimidate the people trying to pass by them.  In effect, there was no law that the police could actually enforce, and the protesters harassed patients and staff without pause.

The law that is now being challenged was carefully crafted and narrowly tailored to strike the proper balance between First Amendment rights and the right to be able to access fundamental and legal health care services, and it has achieved that goal.  Check out the Planned Parenthood health center in Allston any morning.  You'll see that the protesters are still there with their signs, pamphlets, and oral arguments that you can hear as clear as a bell.  They haven't slowed down one iota.  No one has suffered harm from this law, which makes it all the more frustrating, though not surprising , that this activist court would choose to take up this case.

What the current buffer zone has done is provide what's probably 5-10 seconds of conflict-free space that has reduced tension, lowered the intimidation factor, and strengthened the public safety aspects for all concerned.  The state has a vested interest in providing said environment for its citizens, and this law accomplishes its intended purpose.

This buffer zone is based on a Colorado law that provides for a 100 foot zone for clinics and was already found constitutional by the Supreme Court, which is known as the "Hill decision."   Today's announcement included the notification that the court will be reviewing "Hill" as well.  This should be considered a warning to us all.  The justices are not looking to give these important laws a warm hug.

Whatever John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and perhaps Anthony Kennedy have in mind, it's likely yet another attack on our privacy.  The right to express an opposition to abortion should be protected, but women and men also have the right to access fundamental health care services, from contraception, to STD testing, to yes, abortions, without being intimidated by mobs.  Health care professionals have a right to be able to go to work without worrying for their safety.  The Supreme Court should uphold the Massachusetts law, reaffirm "Hill," and stop interfering in medical decisions that should be left to a patient and a physician.


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