By Rick Sobey
When Christine Hanley protested outside abortion clinics in Brookline and Worcester, she saw grandparents praying and protesters calmly talking to patients.
"There's no animosity. They're just friendly people trying to save those babies," said Hanley, who lives in Shirley and is a member of the Massachusetts Citizens for Life Fitchburg/Leominster chapter. "The buffer zone at clinics is not necessary because the protesters are not harassing them."
Hanley and other abortion protesters and supporters will have their eyes glued to the U.S. Supreme Court today as arguments on the 35-foot buffer-zone law passed in 2007 in Massachusetts are being heard. It is being challenged as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.
Patients seeking treatment in Massachusetts abortion clinics are protected by the 35-foot buffer zone. The law expanded the 18-foot "zone of regulated conduct" to a strict 35-foot buffer from protesters and anti-abortion advocates, trying to make it safe for patients and staff at abortion clinics.
On Tuesday, Hanley and some legislators from the area called the buffer-zone law a "violation of free speech."
"I ultimately don't like any buffer zone, and I hope the Supreme Court looks at it very carefully and rules that other rights are important as well," said state Rep. Colleen Garry, D-Dracut, who opposed the bill in 2007. "Whenever I've visited a clinic, there's only a couple people saying prayers and that was it, so I believe this was an overreach by Planned Parenthood and I hope it changes."
Anti-abortion activists are challenging the law over the limits on their activities at Planned Parenthood health centers in Boston, Springfield and Worcester. At the latter two sites, the protesters say they have little chance of reaching patients arriving by car because they must stay 35 feet from the entrance to those buildings' parking lots.
On the other side, abortion-rights advocates had criticized the initial 18-foot law because it was hard to enforce and allowed protesters to move freely through the protest-free zone, sometimes physically blocking patients from clinics.
Planned Parenthood workers and state officials said the buffer zone has significantly reduced the harassment of patients and clinic employees. Before the 35-foot zone went into effect in 2007, protesters could stand next to the entrance and force patients to squeeze by.
State Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, supported the legislation in 2007. She said the 35-foot zone doesn't prevent anyone from expressing their opinions.
"When it comes to decisions as delicate and difficult as pregnancy, it's important for women to go into a clinic without the fear of being approached and intimidated," Flanagan said. "If it's overturned, it would make it more intimidating for patients to walk into the facility, and they might not seek out medical attention.
"I'm hoping the law does not change here," she added.
However, state Rep. James Lyons, R-Andover, aligns more with Garry on this issue. Lyons, who said he would have opposed the buffer zone if he served in 2007, said the law targets a specific group.
"Restricting a group of people should not be allowed under any circumstances," said Lyons, whose district includes part of Tewksbury. "It was an overreach on the Legislature to restrict their freedom of speech and violate their First Amendment rights."
But a UMass Lowell political science professor said the case is not as simple as free speech. Susan Gallagher, who specializes in American politics and gender studies, said the Supreme Court will be weighing free speech against a woman's right to privacy.
She said patients should have a right to be left alone from protesters with the buffer zone, which is "not infringing on their free speech."
"Because they have a right to privacy and a right to not be subjected to other's religious views, it outweighs the protesters' right to free speech," said Gallagher, who has taught at the university for 16 years. "Protesters are still free to voice their views, just not in a way to harass and interfere with the patients.
"The Supreme Court itself bans public protests from its plaza, so why shouldn't Planned Parenthood have the same right?" she added.
While Gallagher is hopeful the court upholds the law, she wouldn't be surprised if it's overturned because the justices have been very supportive of free speech.
Another UMass Lowell political science professor, Morgan Marietta, predicts the Supreme Court will likely declare the buffer zone unconstitutional because "in our nation, the right to be left alone has never been considered as important as the right to free speech. ... The right to avoid political speech is secondary to the right to express it."
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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