Imagine you are visiting an attorney to file for a divorce. This is your first time seeking a divorce lawyer and you’re feeling emotional, but after finally making the agonizing decision to end your marriage, you are also resolute in your choice. You are about to enter the divorce lawyer’s office when a stranger approaches you and hands you a pamphlet. “Divorce is wrong,” the stranger says, “Marriage is a sacrament and you are committing a sin.” You don’t know this person, they don’t know you or anything about the situation that lead you here, yet he/she has invaded your personal space, putting you in a position of “fight or flight” that makes your whole body clench up. By the time you meet with your lawyer, you are so anxious that you need to calm down for several minutes before you can speak.This is what abortion protestors want to be able to do to patients entering abortion clinics. What is supposed to be a private decision becomes a public one, where women who are likely feeling vulnerable or nervous to begin with would be bombarded by a sanctimonious stranger handing out unsolicited advice, “counseling,” and biased reading material.

On June 24th the Massachusetts Supreme Court agreed to review a law that prohibits protesters from being within 35 feet of abortion clinics. According to the Feminist Majority, a buffer zone “helps ensure that those giving and seeking reproductive health care can safely enter and leave medical facilities, keep entrances open, prevent traffic problems, maintain distance between individuals, minimize physical contact, and reduce harassment and intimidation.”

The law was first introduced in response to the 1994 murder of receptionists Lee Ann Nichols and Shannon Lowney at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline. The perpetrator, 21 year-old John C. Salvi, III, was convicted of the killings in 1996. According to Nicki Nichols Gamble, the then-president of Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts, the verdict would help to “deescalate the climate of fear and violence that has surrounded the services we provide.” The buffer zone law was designed to further that aim. But The Boston Globe reported that it has been a prolonged legal battle, with pro-life activists claiming that the law restricts their First Amendment right to free speech. The pending decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court would have ramifications for other states that have similar buffer zone laws or are seeking to adopt them.

The argument that the buffer zone law restricts free speech is not a new one. All along abortion protesters have maintained that most people will not take literature from them unless it is placed in their hands—something that is impossible if they are legally obligated to stand 35 feet away from incoming patients.

But how far are we to take our right to Freedom of Speech? What if it interferes with a patient’s privacy? Or leads to the harassment, intimidation, and violence that has already been demonstrated in other parts of the country that don’t have a buffer zone law? The decision to have an abortion is a private and personal matter made by an individual in the care of their doctor. According to the Feminist Majority, “expert research on personal space suggests that interactions with strangers who intrude too closely in a public place are perceived as hostile and threatening.” If medical care is to provide a restful, comforting experience to patients who are likely anxious over the surgery to begin with (as any surgery patient, regardless of the procedure, would be) then their needs to be a law that insures that peaceful experience.

If the legality of abortion means anything to Massachusetts, the Supreme Court will recognize patients and medical staff’s right to personal space that is ensured by the buffer zone law. Otherwise a woman’s right to choose a safe, legal abortion becomes meaningless.

~ By Jennifer Campaniolo