Without a buffer zone, protesters' expression of free speech outside of healthcare centers has included chaining themselves to medical equipment and blocking access to healthcare centers.
On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law establishing a protected zone around healthcare centers providing abortion. We at Planned Parenthood are disappointed with the Court’s ruling, which shows that far too many people — including far too many powerful people — don’t understand what it is like to be a woman in this country who simply wants to make her own healthcare decisions in private without harassment or intimidation.
Indeed, this is a ruling against the safety of women receiving basic health care. It is a ruling against the protection of staff workers trying to get to their job without being screamed at and facing the threat of violence. Though this type of threatening behavior is rare outside reproductive health centers, when it does happen it is frightening — and that is why patient protection zones are so important.
Despite this discouraging decision, Planned Parenthood will continue safeguarding our patients. The good news is that many patient protection laws across the country remain intact. Our patients and staff will continue to be shielded by the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. In Massachusetts, Planned Parenthood is working with the governor, the attorney general’s office and local law enforcement to ensure that, in spite of this ruling, the privacy and safety of every patient accessing health care and every staff member doing his or her job will remain safe — no matter what.
With all due respect to the Justices, they have erred in invalidating the buffer zone as an impermissible regulation of speech. Protesters always have had ample opportunities to express their opinions directly to patients and staff. And the Court also distorted reality when it focused on supposed “caring” conversations from protesters.
In Massachusetts, before the buffer zone law was enacted, patients and staff were often subjected to intense and aggressive harassment. Planned Parenthood in particular was routinely singled out by protesters who went beyond expressing themselves through conversation. They disrupted the operation of health centers by chaining themselves to medical equipment. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the doorway of our healthcare centers, blocking access for our patients and staff. They screamed directly into the ears of patients, jarring them at a sensitive moment — when they were en route to a private medical appointment.
This volatile, unsafe environment in Massachusetts paved the way for tragedy. In 1994, a man barged into the Planned Parenthood health center in Brookline and opened fire, murdering one staff member and injuring three others. He then went to another nearby health center, murdering another staff member and wounding two others.
When the law was enacted, it was instantly clear that it worked. The atmosphere outside Planned Parenthood health centers became transformed to one of peaceful coexistence. Speech was never prevented outside healthcare centers. The only restriction protesters faced was to stand 35 feet away from the entrance of a healthcare center. Thirty-five feet is roughly the length of a school bus. When someone screams “Murderer!” from a distance of 35 feet, you hear the message loud and clear.
In short, the Massachusetts buffer zone law defused tensions and reduced violence because it struck the appropriate balance between preserving free speech rights and protecting public safety. It has proven to be an effective and balanced solution.
Americans are accustomed to buffer zones. They are erected outside Election Day polling places to protect voters. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has its own buffer zone to protect the safety and dignity of the Court, but the Court was silent on its own buffer zone in this decision. Apparently, women and staff do not deserve the same protection.
With or without a buffer zone, Planned Parenthood will work to keep our patients safe. One tool has been taken from us, but we have others at our disposal. We will ensure our patients can continue to make carefully considered, private medical decisions, without running a gauntlet of harassing and threatening protesters.
This decision is not the end of the story. At Planned Parenthood we continue forward in our relentless commitment to enable women to make their own healthcare decisions without fear, judgment or intimidation — and that will never change.
Cecile Richards is the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.