The XX Factor

Abortion Clinic Workers on Why the Supreme Court Should Uphold Buffer Zones

Anti-choicers can say what they want, even from 35 feet away.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

In 2007, Massachusetts passed a “buffer zone” law that states that anti-abortion protesters must stand at least 35 feet away from an abortion clinic’s front entrance. Those protesters are free to say what they want. Women who would like their input before they proceed into the clinic are perfectly free to stop and talk to the protesters. However, it turns out that many women do not want to have a conversation with anti-choice protesters. This frustrates the protesters, who did all this work of showing up to say mean things to women seeking abortion, only to find the women unwilling to listen to them. They would like to force the women to listen to them by getting in their faces, just as they would, if they had their druthers, like to force the women to have babies.

On Wednesday, lawyers for Massachusetts anti-choice protesters argued in front of the Supreme Court that the buffer-zone law should be overturned, and it looks like they might get their way. (The court has upheld buffer zones in the past, but anti-choicers are hoping the more conservative bent of the new court will change the ruling.) The anti-choice protesters wisely chose a sweet-looking grandmother named Eleanor McCullen as lead plaintiff. “I should be able to walk and talk gently, lovingly, anywhere with anybody,” McCullen told NPR. But gentle, loving, chitchat is hardly what abortion clinics and patients are facing when buffer zones are not in place.

Planned Parenthood filed an amicus brief detailing what life was like at one Massachusetts clinic prior to the current buffer zone, and it was a lot more upsetting than a few nosy grandmothers who think you modern girls should stop screwing around and start having babies. Protesters “wore Boston Police Department hats and shirts and stationed themselves, carrying clipboards, at the garage entrance,” demanding that patients give them personal information. Protesters would attack clinic escorts with umbrellas. While the prior law disallowed directly approaching patients, anti-choicers would follow them around screaming invectives, often through bullhorns. When cops were called, the protesters argued that they were just following, not “approaching.” The police department itself suggested a stronger buffer zone around the front door. 

Michelle Kinsey Bruns, a Virginia-based activist who has volunteered in clinic defense in eight states, told me that she’s seen plenty of patients who come to clinics “in fight mode,” worried about being bullied by protesters. “That’s what clinic harassment and violence have done for the experience of going to a gynecologist’s office: Patients know it’s going to be a gauntlet, and they approach it like a combat zone.” And Lori Gregory-Garrott, an escort at the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, wrote on Slate about the daily battle that is just trying to get patients past a wall of hostile protesters, even if the patients are just picking up their birth control prescriptions. 

Even with the current buffer zone, things can be hard for clinic workers. One counselor named Megan, who works at an independent Massachusetts abortion clinic, described her situation: “Despite the 35-foot barrier, I have to walk through the protesters to get to the front door. Each time I walk to work, no matter how many times I have done it, my heart starts pounding when I see them.” They yell the typical accusations of murder and tell her she’s going to hell. “I’m worried that dangerous situations in other parts of the country will become life-threatening if buffer zones are taken away,” she adds. 

There is reason to worry. In 1994, protesters at Planned Parenthood’s Brookline Facility in Massachusetts started to obsess over a 25-year-old clinic worker named Shannon Lowney, the receptionist who opened the front doors every day. For this, they deemed her “Public Enemy No. 1.” She was murdered on Dec. 30, 1994, by 22-year-old John Salvi, who then moved on to another clinic where he shot and killed another worker before finally being captured. Witnesses testified that Salvi shouted, “This is what you get! You should pray the rosary!” while he fired his gun. Lowney’s brother Liam is in Washington to support the Massachusetts law, telling CBS Boston that buffer zones are “an important tool in ensuring women access” to reproductive health services.

It’s hard to imagine that the “right” to get into people’s faces would be defended at all, if the targets were anyone but young women being castigated for their sexual choices. As writer Jesse Taylor said on Twitter on Wednesday, “I try to imagine what would happen if anti-gun protesters stood outside of gun stores calling customers murderers.” And while the Supreme Court found that the “God hates fags” protesters that picket military funerals have a right to free speech, the government still has laws requiring protesters to keep their distance—300 feet and not the paltry 35 the Supreme Court is considering today.