Buffer Zones Are Critical to the Safety of Women and Health-Care Providers

The issue here is safety. Buffer zones reduce the very real threats of violence and intimidation that abortion providers and their patients face every day.

A state senate committee heard arguments for enacting a 25-foot patient safety zone, while several anti-choice bills have been introduced in the house. Yellow lines via Shutterstock

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in McCullen v. Coakley, a challenge to a Massachusetts buffer zone law that creates a safe space around reproductive health-care facilities. Buffer zones are critical to the continued safety of reproductive health-care patients and staff because they ensure a limited, yet essential, area for patients to access reproductive health care and for providers to access their workplace.

Since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, reproductive health-care providers have become the targets of violence and intimidation. What began as peaceful protests in the 1970s, escalated to blockading clinic entrances; arsons and bombings; acid attacks; stalking and kidnapping doctors and their families; and even murdering reproductive health-care workers. Since 1977, there have been eight murders, 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 181 arsons, and thousands of incidents of criminal activities. Massachusetts abortion providers have been personally affected by this extreme violence, as two clinic employees, Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols, were murdered and five other people were injured when an anti-abortion extremist went on a shooting rampage inside two clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1994.

Unfortunately, violence and intimidation have become part of daily life for many abortion providers throughout the country. In September 2013, the National Abortion Federation surveyed our members about violence and obstruction outside their facilities, and 92 percent of responding facilities reported that they are concerned about the safety of their patients in the areas approaching the facility.

One member in Virginia said, “We called the police because of safety concerns for a patient who telephoned us from her car in fear. Two staff members went to assist her and when the door was opened to let staff in, a protester jumped in too, yelling at the patient.”

“Twice recently protesters pushed or shoved our patients. Several protesters have come into our clinic waiting room pretending to be patients. We have now had to hire armed security guards in order to feel safe,” said one NAF member in Michigan.

In contrast, 75 percent of responding facilities with buffer zones stated that the zones improved patient and staff access to the facilities. As one NAF member in Massachusetts responded, “It has been wonderful to have the protesters farther away from the clinic. It has cleared the path from the curb to the front door, made it free of obstruction and easier, safer and more comfortable for patients and staff. It has also cleared a path around the staff garage—making staff feel safer.”

The Massachusetts law creates a 35-foot fixed buffer zone around the entrances of reproductive health-care facilities. It takes someone approximately seven seconds to walk through a 35-foot buffer zone. Those seven seconds can make all the difference to a woman walking the gauntlet of aggressive anti-abortion extremists on her way to a health-care center, or for a clinic staff person walking into their job every day.

The issue here is safety. Buffer zones reduce the very real threats of violence and intimidation that abortion providers and their patients face every day. Doctors and clinic staff have been threatened with harm, while health-care facilities have been bombed, burned down, and blockaded.

And they do so while continuing to respect the free speech rights of anti-abortion protesters to distribute literature or engage in conversations with whomever they choose outside that minimal space.

Just like buffer zones around polling locations protect voters from intimidation by political operatives lobbying for a candidate or issue, buffer zones around reproductive health-care facilities protect women from intimidation by those opposed to abortion.

The Massachusetts law has support from law enforcement who cite its effectiveness in curbing violence and maintaining public safety. It is also supported by residents who remember the devastating violence that ended the lives of two of their own in 1994. The Supreme Court should uphold this reasonable and essential law.