U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Buffer Zones for Massachusetts Abortion Clinics, Hinders Women’s Access to Constitutionally Protected Health Care in the State

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(PRESS RELEASE) Today the U.S. Supreme Court hindered Massachusetts women's safe passage into reproductive health care facilities in striking down a state law requiring a buffer zone around abortion clinics.

Although today’s ruling finds that the Massachusetts law is unconstitutional, the Court has confirmed that governments have a significant interest in protecting a woman’s freedom to seek pregnancy-related services—including abortion—and that states can pass laws that protect access to clinics.

The case—McCullen v. Coakleywas brought by anti-choice advocates and challenges the state law prohibiting any individual from occupying 35 feet around an entrance or driveway of a reproductive health care facility providing abortions.  Massachusetts’ law created a safe space around the state's reproductive health care facilities, while respecting the rights of anti-choice protesters to distribute literature or engage in conversation with whomever they choose outside that space. 

Said Nancy Northup, President and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights:

“It is a commitment of our Constitution that each of us be able to exercise our rights free of intimidation, harassment, and violence.  Today's Supreme Court decision leaves Massachusetts women temporarily without important protection as they seek care at reproductive health clinics, but gives lawmakers the opportunity to restore these vital safeguards.

"Buffer zones have long served as an important tool for defending the exercise of a range of rights, including access to schools, the ballot box and to constitutionally protected reproductive health care.  

"Today's decision comes at a time of unprecedented assault on access to abortion services across the country, as state legislatures pass laws that are closing clinics and banning services. Fortunately, Massachusetts lawmakers have acted before to protect women, and we will look to them now to take swift action in the wake of this decision.” 

In the decades since abortion was legalized in the U.S, doctors and clinic staff have been continually threatened with harm, patients have been routinely harassed, and abortion clinics have suffered bombings, arson, and blockades. According to the National Abortion Federation, there have been eight murders, 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 181 incidences of arson, and thousands of incidents involving other criminal activities since 1977.

Law enforcement officers in Massachusetts favor the buffer zone law, citing its effectiveness in curbing violence and maintaining public safety outside of reproductive health care facilities.  Massachusetts reproductive health care providers and their patients had a long history of experiencing violence, intimidation, and harassment before the buffer zone took effect.

The Center for Reproductive Rights led a coalition of 16 civil rights organizations in submitting an amicus curiae brief in support of the Massachusetts law.  The amici, comprised of a wide range of prominent and diverse civil rights organizations, have “a vital interest in ensuring that the government is able to protect individuals seeking to exercise their fundamental rights from interference by third-parties.”

Whether through clinic violence or political attempts to shut down clinics altogether, women in this country experience myriad challenges when accessing reproductive health care services. The federal Women's Health Protection Act (S. 1696/H.R. 3471) would remedy many of these hurdles by preventing states from imposing unconstitutional restrictions on reproductive health care providers that apply to no similar medical care, interfere with women’s personal decision making, and block access to safe and legal abortion services.