TIME politics

Supreme Court Doesn’t Understand What It’s Like to Be a Woman in This Country

Planned Parenthood On Commonwealth Avenue
Self-described "Right to Lifer" Ray Neary stands behind the yellow line as he protests outside of a Planned Parenthood on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, Mass. on June 26, 2014. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images) Boston Globe—Boston Globe via Getty Images

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.

 

TIME Law

A Supreme Court Guide for Where to Stand When Protesting

A Supreme Court ruling raises questions about what's allowed, and what's not

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a Massachusetts law mandating a 35-foot “buffer zone” around abortion clinics is unconstitutional because it limited speech on sidewalks and other “public fora.”

But in dozens of other decisions over the last 30 years, the court has held that buffer zones can be constitutional. Even if they’re outside medical facilities. And even if they encroach on public fora. So what gives? How’s a protester supposed to know where it’s constitutional to protest and where it’s not?

Here’s a quick-and-dirty guide on when and where (constitutional!) buffer zones still apply:

Outside some local abortion clinics…

Justices Question Mass. Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones
A yellow line is painted on the sidewalk and pavement surrounding Planned Parenthood Clinics at 1055 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, Jan. 15, 2014. David L. Ryan—Boston Globe/Getty Images

While the court’s decision Thursday will almost definitely lead to legal challenges to existing buffer zone laws, cities and counties from San Francisco to Pittsburgh to Buffalo will probably keep them on the books. Because many of these local laws are narrowly written and target specific clinics or medical facilities, they may not be affected by today’s ruling, in which the justices primarily objected to the broadness of the Massachusetts law—the only state-level statute in the country. In Portland, for instance, protesters cannot come within 39-feet of the entrance to one specific Planned Parenthood building.

Outside hospitals and other medical facilities

HEALTHONE NORTH SUBURBAN MEDICAL CENTER
HealthONE & North Suburban Medical Center in Thornton, Colo. PR Newswire/AP

In 2000, the Supreme Court upheld a Colorado law mandating a 100-foot buffer zone around the entrance of a “health care facility.” The law also banned protesters from “knowingly approach[ing] within 8 feet of another person” in order to hand her a leaflet or handbill, or “engage in oral protest.” This is an interesting case because it’s very similar to the case that the court decided today, and the justices came to the opposite conclusion, and yet they did not overrule it. Why? It’s not entirely clear. The legal differences between the two cases have legal scholars scratching their heads.

On or Near Military Bases…

Memorial Held At Ft. Hood For Victims Of Last Week's Shooting
U.S. Army soldiers salute during the national anthem at Fort Hood military base in Killen, Texas on April 9, 2014. Erich Schlegel—Getty Images

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that it was perfectly legal to shoo an anti-war protester away from a military base in California that he’d already been kicked out of once. It didn’t matter, the justices said, if the protester stood within a clearly marked “designated protest area.” In that case, the court decided on statutory grounds that all the land owned by the Air Force was considered “the base,” and the protester had been kicked off “the base.” So even though the protester now wanted to stand within an easement designed for public protest, he was out of luck. The court left the question of whether that violated the First Amendment to the lower court.

At Military Funerals…

Last Trip Home: Family Mourns Soldier Killed In Friendly Fire Incident In Afghanistan
Soldiers carry the casket of U.S. Army Pfc. Aaron Toppen from Parkview Christian Church following his funeral service on June 24, 2014 in Mokena, Ill. Scott Olson—Getty Images

The Supreme Court decided in 2011 that the Westboro Baptist Church was allowed to protest military funerals on the grounds that “even hurtful speech” got First Amendment protections. The court, however, gave legislatures explicit permission to pass buffer zone laws restricting people from protesting outside cemeteries and funeral homes. At least 41 states took them up on the offer, and last year, U.S. Congress passed a sweeping law on veterans’ rights, one part of which prevented demonstrators from picketing a military funeral within two hours before or after the service, and from coming within 300 feet of grieving family members.

Outside Places of Worship…

Church
United Methodist church, Massachusetts. John Humble—Getty Images

While there hasn’t been a Supreme Court case on the matter, many states have laws on the books restricting protestors from getting too close to all kinds of religious sanctuaries, including mosques, churches, synagogues, and temples. Those buffer zones range in size from a few feet to shouting-distance.

At Polling Places…

DC voters head to the polls in the Democratic Primary for mayor
Democratic voters wait in line at the Eastern Market polling place to vote in the Democratic primary for the District’s mayor race in Washington, April 1, 2014. The Washington Post/Getty Images

In 1991, the Supreme Court upheld a Tennessee law restricting protesters, campaign staff or others from coming within 100 feet of the entrances to polling stations to solicit votes or display campaign material. In that controversial 5-3 decision, the court found that since the Tennessee law didn’t block out political messages entirely—just within a narrow buffer zone—it passed muster under the First Amendment.

When the President is Nearby…

Barack Obama, William M. Knight
President Barack Obama returns a salute from Col. William M. Knight as he steps off of Air Force One in Andrews Air Force Base, Md, May 9, 2014. Carolyn Kaster—AP

At a campaign event in Oregon in 2004, President George W. Bush’s Secret Service agents forced anti-Bush demonstrators, who had gathered on a public sidewalk, to stand farther way; however, they did not move a group of pro-Bush demonstrators—much to the chagrin of the American Civil Liberties Union, which took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. Just last month, the justices decided that the lawsuit could not go forward because the agents themselves could not be held liable. That anti-climactic decision left open the question of what rights protesters have in demanding proximity to the president.

At Political Conventions…

US Campaign 2012
President Barack Obama onstage at the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 6, 2012 in Charlotte, N.C. Charles Ommanney—Getty Images

Every four years, the Republicans and Democrats hold their big, glitzy conventions and every year, hordes of protestors are herded around by police, prevented from coming within a few hundred feet of the entrances, and otherwise treated like chopped liver. In light of today’s court decision, do those impromptu buffer zones violate protesters’ First Amendment rights? Erwin Chemerinsky, a top lawyer on matters of free speech, calls that “a really interesting question,” but concedes that “we just don’t know yet.” Challenges to those laws have never made it to the Supreme Court.

Outside the U.S. Supreme Court itself…

Treasury Secretary Lew Speaks At Making Home Affordable 5th Anniversary Summit
Pro-life activists gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court June 26, 2014 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee—Getty Images

Last year, the Supreme Court issued a new regulation banning demonstrators from doing their thing on the marble plaza in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC. The new regulation was in response to a federal judge’s decision last year that a previous regulation barring protests on the plaza was unconstitutional. He cited previous Supreme Court rulings that laws barring demonstrations on court property are unconstitutional, but the court’s marshal says the new regulation is necessary in order to ensure “unimpeded ingress and egress of visitors to the court” and maintain the appearance that SCOTUS is a “body not swayed by external influence.”

TIME abortion

Why Abortion Clinic Protestors May Not Matter

Pro-life activists gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court June 26, 2014 in Washington.
Pro-life activists gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court June 26, 2014 in Washington. Win McNamee—Getty Images

Gauging the impact of a new Supreme Court ruling is difficult

Are they allowed to do this? Are they going to hurt me? Will they be here when I’m done?

Michelle Kinsey Bruns is used to being asked these questions when she volunteers as an abortion clinic escort. Women seeking abortions at clinics across the country often must pass by protestors carrying signs, pamphlets and sometimes even megaphones. In response, many clinics employ or seek volunteers like Bruns to usher women seeking abortions through the gauntlet.

In an effort to further shield women from protestors, Massachusetts enacted a law in 2007 that created a 35-foot buffer zone outside clinics and barred anti-abortion activists from entering it. The Supreme Court unanimously struck down that law Thursday, saying it violated the First Amendment rights of protestors. In effect, the ruling means that women in Massachusetts and across the country are likely to have more contact with anti-abortion protestors in the future. What’s not clear, however, is if more contact—regardless of proximity to patients—will have an impact beyond upsetting women. In short, do protestors actually dissuade women from terminating pregnancies?

It’s hard to say. Academics who study the effects of anti-abortion protestors on women’s decision-making say it’s difficult to collect data on women who may change their minds as a result of protestors. These women may never have contact with abortion providers or researchers studying the topic. But on a related subject—the effect of protestors on women’s states of mind—there is more data.

A 2013 study published in the journal Contraception found that protestors affect the emotional state of women entering abortion clinics. The study, by researchers at the Bixby Center for Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, included interviews with almost 1,000 women who had abortions and were asked whether contact with protestors affected them emotionally. Of the women who saw protestors outside clinics, 41% reported feeling upset because of it. In addition, the more contact women had with protestors, the more upset they felt. But asked if the protestors impacted their feelings about actually having abortions, the women reported their feelings were the same regardless.

“Protestors are upsetting, but they don’t have an effect on women’s long-term feelings about their abortions,” says Dianna Greene Foster, the study’s lead author. “A woman’s reasons for having an abortion are much more salient than the brief yelling or talking from protestors.” Earlier academic research reached the same conclusion.

In the absence of hard data, anecdotal evidence suggests that some women arrive at abortion clinics and opt not to enter due to the presence of protestors. Anti-abortion protestors routinely claim they talk women out of terminating pregnancies. “I can’t refute that,” says Tammi Kromenaker, executive director of the Red River Women’s Clinic, the only abortion provider in North Dakota.

Kromenaker has security cameras outside her facility and has seen, on monitors set up inside, some women turn back while protestors are crowding the sidewalk outside. “I know there have been women intimidated out of coming into the building. I see them leave and I see the protestors hug each other,” Kromenaker says. But sometimes, she adds, “that woman calls us the next day and says, ‘Can I reschedule for next week?’” On the flip side, Kromenaker says, “If somebody you don’t know outside a clinic made you change your mind, then good, you didn’t want an abortion in the first place.”

In a brief filed on behalf of anti-abortion protestors who initiated the Massachusetts buffer zone case, the lead petitioner, Eleanor McCullen, is described as a grandmother in her 70s “who aims to stand on public sidewalks near abortion clinics in order to reach this unique audience, at a unique moment, in a compassionate and non-confrontational way.”

While the behavior of anti-abortion protestors at clinics varies widely, clinic owners and volunteers who escort patients inside say confrontation is common. A protestor at Kromenaker’s clinic once followed a patient inside and only left after Kromenaker threatened him with a stun gun. (He was subsequently arrested for trespassing and ordered to stay at least 50 ft. away from the clinic.) Renee Bracey Sherman, a graduate student who volunteers as an escort at abortion clinics in Washington, D.C., and Hagerstown, Md., says women seeking abortions are often visibly unnerved by shouts from protestors. “I know there’s a discussion about them counseling people, however, I’ve never seen someone counsel. They yell, they say very horrendous things. It’s never actually, ‘Hey, let’s just talk about your options,’” Sherman says. “I’ve seen patients going into the clinics crying, just terrified.”

Bruns, who writes the Twitter feed @ClinicEscort, which has more than 15,000 followers, has volunteered as an escort for five years in clinics in eight states. “The fact of the matter is that anti-choice rhetoric is deeply embedded in the American mind—that abortion is a horrible, brutal thing that’s dangerous,” Bruns says. “And women turn up anyway. When they see a crowd of protestors shouting with video cameras, it gives them a moment’s pause, but they keep coming. They may cry, but they have already make their decision.”

As the Supreme Court ruling makes clear, however, making someone cry is not illegal. Abortion is a constitutionally protected right, and so is saying it’s morally wrong, even if you say it loudly—so long as you are standing on a public sidewalk.

TIME

My Wife’s Abortion vs. Your Free Speech

I still remember the harassment the day we visited a clinic four years ago. By ruling the 35-ft. buffer zone unconstitutional, the Supreme Court is putting people in danger

Planned Parenthood Clinic Will Open After Court Battle
A truck covered with anti-abortion messages is used to protest the opening of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Aurora, Ill., on Oct. 2, 2007. Scott Olson—Getty Images

Thirty-five feet.

It’s a little more than half the distance from home plate to the pitcher’s mound on a baseball diamond. It’s slightly longer than the length of two Cadillac Escalades. It’s 5 ft. shorter than a standard telephone pole.

And until today, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled the buffer zone unconstitutional because it allegedly infringed on free-speech rights, it was the distance anti-choice protesters were forced to stay away from people entering abortion clinics in Massachusetts.

“That’s a lot of space.”

That’s how U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan described the 35 ft. during oral arguments in January. And I guess it is a lot of space—depending on your perspective. For Justice Kagan, 35 ft. on a tape measure might seem like a lot. But I have a slightly different perspective, one that is far more personal and relevant to this particular issue.

In 2010, my wife and I went to a Brookline, Mass., abortion clinic after a team of renowned Boston doctors diagnosed our 16-week-old unborn baby with Sirenomelia. Our baby’s legs were fused together, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The baby had no kidneys, no bladder and no anus. We were given the heartbreaking news that there was a 0% chance of a live birth.

Because my wife’s health wasn’t in immediate danger, the hospital couldn’t get her in for a termination for two weeks. However, that meant it’d be a 50/50 chance of being able to have an abortion or having to deliver a stillborn. After much soul searching and contemplating a no-win scenario, my wife decided a stillbirth was more than she could handle and so the hospital sent us to a recommended clinic to perform an abortion.

When we pulled into the parking lot and got out of our car, the saddest day of our lives got exponentially worse.

Two women, 35 ft. away, were standing across the street holding signs. When they saw us, they immediately started yelling things like “Don’t do it!” and “You’re killing your unborn baby!” I couldn’t have been more horrified. I couldn’t believe how these people would willingly stand outside and harass others at their weakest and most vulnerable. I couldn’t mask my anger, nor could my wife hold back her tears at being unnecessarily and unfairly vilified.

But you know what I could do? I could hear them.

I heard them exercising their First Amendment rights from across the street. I heard them over the din of passing traffic. I heard them from 35 ft. away. Loud and clear.

Those protesters made every use of their right to free speech. Even with a 35-ft. buffer zone, they delivered their message of shame and guilt with ease. In fact, the only thing that was restricted that day was my wife’s ability to walk into a medical facility free from harassment.

And ironically, when I went out to videotape a conversation with them after my wife was in surgery to challenge them in a nonviolent manner, it was the protesters who threatened to call the police and have me removed.

So, Justice Kagan, with all due respect, 35 ft. is not a lot of space when you’re shouting insults at strangers and judging them absent any facts. What it does do, however, is put some very important space between emotionally volatile people enduring copious amounts of heartbreak and those who seek to shame them. Space that could be the only thing preventing physical altercations and scuffles. (The Brookline clinic is where John Salvi shot and killed two Planned Parenthood workers in 1994.)

Had SCOTUS upheld the constitutionality of the buffer zone it would’ve preserved the free speech of the protesters while ensuring women have unobstructed access to the buildings that house their reproductive-health specialists. But without that separation, I worry how often and to what degree future conflicts will escalate.

Too much space? With all due respect, Justice Kagan, 35 ft. wasn’t nearly enough to block out the horror and insults while running the gauntlet that day at the hands of those whose free speech you seek to protect.

Even after 35 ft. and four years later, my wife and I still hear them.

TIME Supreme Court

Supreme Court: Abortion ‘Buffer Zones’ Violate Freedom of Speech

Anti-abortion protestors hold up signs as they celebrate U.S. Supreme Court ruling against protective buffer zones around abortion clinics, outside the Court in Washington
Anti-abortion protestors celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling striking down a Massachusetts law that mandated a protective buffer zone around abortion clinics, outside the Supreme Court in Washington June 26, 2014. Jim Bourg—Reuters

The ruling is a victory for protesters who seek to picket outside of abortion clinics

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that putting up “buffer zones” around abortion clinics is a violation of the First Amendment.

The decision, which reversed a lower court ruling, found that a Massachusetts law that imposes a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics puts an unconstitutional limitation on protesters’ freedom of speech. Written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the unanimous decision in McCullen v. Coakley is an immediate victory for pro-life groups, which have fought hard for the right to protest outside of abortion clinics, and a loss for some pro-choice groups that sought to provide blanket protections for people attempting to enter and leave such facilities.

First Amendment purists on both sides of the ideological divide will also likely count the decision as an unadulterated “win” as it calls into question the constitutionality of other buffer zones, as well as other blanket restrictions on protesters’ movements.

The court objected to the notion of buffer zones in part because such broad perimeters “burden more speech than necessary” by excluding “petitioners” (“not just protesters”) from public sidewalks, streets, and other public thoroughfares, “places that have traditionally been open for speech ac­tivities and that the Court has accordingly labeled ‘traditional public fora.’”

Buffers zones deprive petitioners “of their two primary methods of com­municating with arriving patients: close, personal conversations and distribution of literature. Those forms of expression have historically been closely associated with the transmission of ideas,” the court wrote.

But the decision hardly creates a “free-for-all” for protesters outside abortion clinics or anywhere else. The court left open the possibility that states can pass specific, “narrower” laws designed to protect people entering and leaving abortion clinics, or to ensure the safety of the crowd or others. For example, states can pass laws allowing police offers to force protesters to create an aisle through which a patient or doctor can pass.

The decision also left open the possibility that a state could pass a law entirely banning protests at abortion clinics—but only if it demonstrated that narrower measures had not worked, and that patients and employees were being illegally prevented from accessing a legal establishment.

“[E]ven in a public forum. . . the government may impose reasonable re­strictions on the time, place, or manner of protected speech, provided the restrictions ‘are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, that they are narrowly tailored to serve a signifi­cant governmental interest, and that they leave open ample alterna­tive channels for communication of the information,’” the court held.

This is the most significant decision related to abortion politics since 2007, when the court upheld a ban on some late-term abortions.

The Supreme Court will meet again on Monday for its last day of the term, when it’s expected to hand down two more hotly anticipated decisions—one on the Hobby Lobby case addressing the Obamacare contraception mandate and the other, Harris v. Quinn, on public sector unions.

TIME Religion

What It Really Means for Pope Francis to Excommunicate the Mob

Italy Pope
Pope Francis celebrates a Mass in Sibari, southern Italy on June 21, 2014. Alessandra Tarantino—AP

Why the Pope took sides against the Family

Pope Francis used the e-word against the mob for the first time this weekend.

The Holy Father was celebrating mass on Saturday in Calabria, a mob-heavy region in southern Italy, when he deviated from his prepared remarks and announced that the mafia are excommunicated. “Those who go down the evil path, as the Mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated,” he said. The thousands who had gathered underneath the hot sun cheered.

Calabria is home to the ‘Ndrangheta, a global drug trafficking syndicate. Reports suggest that the group turns over $72 billion per year in the cocaine trade and uses that wealth to entice young people in the region—where the unemployment rate is 50% or higher—to work for it. Last week Pope Francis also reaffirmed his position against recreational drug use and the drug trade.

Francis has condemned corporate financial sins throughout his papacy, particularly for their socio-economic consequences. His pronouncement on Saturday yet again shows how seriously he takes those consequences.

“When adoration of the Lord is substituted by adoration of money, the road to sin opens to personal interest…Your land, which so beautiful, knows the signs of the consequences of this sin,” Francis explained. “The ‘ndrangheta is this: adoration of evil and contempt of the common good. This evil must be fought, must be expelled. It must be told no.”

Pope Francis’ pronouncement was the strongest censure of the mafia so far in his papacy, or in any of his predecessors’ papacies. Excommunication does not mean that a person is banned from the church, but it is a public recognition by church authorities that a person is no longer part of the Catholic community. Technically excommunication means the excommunicated party has chosen to separate him or herself from the church through their own un-Catholic choices. The Pope doesn’t excommunicate, but people excommunicate themselves by their behavior. Excommunication also does not mean a person is denied from heaven and the afterlife (that’s “anathema”)—one’s baptism is still effectual, meaning it still carries its sacramental worth.

Excommunication is usually reserved for grave offenses, and some sins incur automatic excommunication. These traditionally include abortion (the woman who has it and all accomplices), apostasy (total repudiation of Christian faith), heresy (obstinate denial of doctrine), schism (refusing to submit to the Pope and church community), violating the sacred species (throwing away/desecrating elements of Eucharist), physically attacking the pope, consecrating a bishop without Vatican’s authorization, sacramentally absolving an accomplice in a sexual sin, and violating the seal of confession.

Francis is building on a theme of his papacy that financial behavior deserves equal scrutiny and attention as often-hyped sexual sins. Often people think of excommunication as a consequence for an individual, but the Pope’s words were a reminder that communities can sin too—and that a group’s financial behavior affect society as a whole, sometimes violently. Love of money and violent or dishonest behavior are right up there with abortion in his mind. It is another reason Francis has also been working to reform the scandal-plagued Vatican bank, the Institute for Religious Works, and that he has condemned the “idolatry of money” and unfettered capitalism as a “new tyranny.”

Life together, Pope Francis is reminding the world, is at the core of the Catholic message. That’s why excommunication means something. When someone is excommunicated, they are ex-communion, out of communion, and they cannot participate in the sacrament of Eucharist, a public action by a group of people setting themselves apart for the Christian life.

Will priests start denying members of the mafia the bread and wine? That remains to be seen, and it would likely be a risky decision. Francis appears unabashed. He’s preaching a bigger message: reconciliation and societal change. Even excommunication is not the end of relationship with the church. The same day, Pope Francis reminded a group of prisoners that God always forgives, meaning that reunion is always possible. “The Lord is a master at rehabilitation,” he said. “He takes us by the hand and brings us back into the social community. The Lord always forgives, always accompanies, always understands; it is up to us to let ourselves be understood, forgiven and accompanied.”

Whether the mafia listens to that message is another matter.

TIME Religion

Christian Right Attacks Planned Parenthood For Praying

Prayer gets political

Prayer is often one of the few acts that can cross religious and political divides, no matter how deep. But last week, the president of the Family Research Council criticized Planned Parenthood Federation of America for reaching out to women in the name of God. “Women are used to Planned Parenthood preying on them—but praying on them? That’s a new approach altogether,” Tony Perkins wrote on the FRC website. “Obviously, [Planned Parenthood] is always looking for new ways to justify abortion. But the Bible? That’s a step too far, even for them.”

Perkins was responding to a Planned Parenthood “Pastoral Letter to Patients” written by the group’s 15-member Clergy Advocacy Board and posted online. “Many people wrongly assume that all religious leaders disapprove of abortion,” the letter reads. “The truth is that abortion is not even mentioned in the Scriptures—Jewish or Christian—and there are clergy and people of faith from all denominations who support women making this complex decision.”

That message, Perkins felt, crosses a line. “Is Planned Parenthood so desperate for business that it has to spiritualize the murder of tiny children?” he wrote.

“We felt it was time to weigh in and make sure that our supporters were aware of Planned Parenthood’s latest tactics,” Perkins tells TIME.

Planned Parenthood’s pastoral letter, however, wasn’t actually new. It has been on the group’s website since October 2013, and it is part of a group of clergy’s longstanding efforts to support Planned Parenthood affiliates and patients. The group’s Clergy Advocacy Board spans a range of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions, and while the religious groups have their own particular views about abortion, they share the view that God loves women no matter their decision about a pregnancy. “We believe that clergy have a special responsibility to bear witness in support of reproductive rights so that the public and their elected representatives may understand the theological and moral basis for reproductive rights,” says the Clergy Board’s statement of beliefs. “The decision about abortion is a matter between a woman, her conscience, and/or her God, and that those close to her should offer support in any way they can.”

Three clergy board members—the Board’s chair, Reform Jewish Rabbi Jon Adland of Canton, Ohio; vice-chair Rev. Susan Russell, of All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, Calif.; and Reform Jewish Rabbi Dennis Ross of Concerned Clergy for Choice in Albany, N.Y.—responded to Perkins’ criticism against their work in a statement to TIME. “Too often, the voices of negative religious discourse around abortion are those that loudly proclaim their teachings are the only ones that are valid,” they say. “They try to shame and judge women who are making deeply personal and often complex decisions about their pregnancies.”

For these Christian and Jewish leaders, their efforts far from spiritualize abortion–they defend a woman’s religious liberty. “As clergy members, we work every day to make clear that everyone is entitled to follow their own conscience and religious beliefs; what they don’t have the right to do is impose those beliefs on everyone else,” they say.

As ministers, they also believe they also have a spiritual responsibility to care for and counsel families in their communities. “As faith leaders, we recognize that women need to be supported and receive compassionate care while making deeply personal decisions based on faith and conscience,” they say. “It is important that women know that there are people of faith who respect a woman’s ability to make these deeply personal decisions in consultation with her family, her doctor, and her faith.”

The spat again revives the culture war debate over who can claim the Bible, and ultimately, who can claim that God endorses their cause. The majority of white evangelicals, Mormons, and Hispanic Catholics believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, according to the Pew Research Center, while the majority of white mainline Protestants, white Catholics, black Protestants, Jews, and unaffiliated believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Perkins, however, suggests that Christianity and Planned Parenthood are incompatible. “A straightforward reading of the Bible shows that since the beginning God held human life to be sacred, and values human life, no matter the stage,” Perkins says. “I imagine that Christians, supposed or true, who support Planned Parenthood either do not fully understand what abortion is, what its physical and emotional consequences are or what Planned Parenthood as an organization actually stands for and advocates.”

TIME health

What’s Hobby Lobby’s Problem With IUDs?

Copper IUD
Copper IUD B. Boissonnet—BSIP/Corbis

Update: The Supreme Court has ruled that closely held corporations with religious convictions cannot be required by the government to cover employees’ emergency contraception.

Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma City-based craft store is known for its owners Christian values: they don’t work on Sundays; they play Christian music in stores. Now the privately-owned corporation doesn’t want to offer health insurance that would cover employees’ emergency contraception under the Affordable Care Act. They argued their case to the Supreme Court in March, citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 as legal precedent. This month the court will rule on Hobby Lobby’s right to opt out of covering those pills and devices they believe to be abortifacients. “Believe” is the key word here, as the U.S. government defines pregnancy to begin when a fertilized egg implants in the uterus, and these drugs and devices prevent implantation. Nevertheless, as the company’s brief states, “given their [religious] beliefs, Respondents cannot cover [Plan B, Ella, and two types of intrauterine devices] without facilitating what they believe to be an abortion.”

Hobby Lobby’s objection to “morning after” pills like Plan B and Ella which can can be taken up to five days after intercourse to prevent pregnancy isn’t so surprising. These pills have long been targeted by by the Pro-Life movement even though they’re not abortifacients as the government defines them, rather they’re emergency contraception since there’s no implantation of a fertilized egg. You may have thought the battle was over after Plan B became available over-the-counter in all states last year. But what is unusual about this case is the company’s objection to intrauterine devices (IUDs).

Though still a niche form of birth control, IUDs have surged in popularity in recent years—in 2012, 8.5 percent of American women who used contraception chose an IUD, compared with 5.5 percent in 2007. These small, t-shaped devices are implanted in the uterus by a gynecologist and can safely stay there for up to 12 years, with an astonishingly low failure rate of 0.2 percent (compared with the pill’s average 9 percent). The IUD’s main draw is its long-term efficacy. So why is it included in a case about emergency contraception pills ?

As it turns out, copper IUDs are known to be an effective method of emergency contraception if inserted within five days of intercourse. Once in, the device can stay there for years just the same as if it were not used in an emergency situation. Like many forms of contraception, scientists aren’t sure exactly how this method works, but they know that it can be effective.

Nevertheless, emergency contraception is hardly the main reason most women choose an IUD and many who do choose one choose a hormonal IUD, which works differently and has not been proven as an effective “morning-after” method). Unfortunately, statistics aren’t available on the reasons go to their gynecologists to have the IUD procedurewhether for emergency or long-term contraception. But James Trussell, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University who has done extensive research on the subject, acknowledges, “We don’t have any numbers but I would say that the number who get IUDs as emergency contraception is miniscule.”

Putting aside religious beliefs about conception and abortion, there’s something odd about Hobby Lobby’s tactic. Okay, copper IUDs can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. But most women who seek an IUD probably aren’t getting one for that purpose—they’re simply choosing a highly effective option that doesn’t require them to remember to take a pill. And if the company is truly concerned about preventing abortions, why not support a method of contraception that’s even more effective than the birth control pills they’ll continue to cover? Remember, too, that certain brands of pills can also serve as emergency contraception by increasing the dose. To allow one method of birth control that can also work as emergency contraception but not another, seems to be an unnecessarily complex legal maneuver—especially since the one they’re targeting is less popular than birth control pills and therefore less likely to incite outrage among employees.

But perhaps the company is looking at the long game here. If SCOTUS rules in Hobby Lobby’s favor, it could set a groundbreaking precedent allowing companies to pick and choose what kinds of general health care they choose to cover based on religious grounds. And that could affect anything from blood transfusions to vaccines as several of the Justices have worried. More narrowly, it could lead to a nuts-and-bolts breakdown of the kinds of contraception employees can get. At a cost of $500-1,000 up-front without insurance, the IUD is unlikely to catch on as a popular method of birth control if employers are allowed to opt out of providing coverage.

TIME movies

The Obvious Question About Obvious Child: How Do You Make a Rom-Com With an Abortion?

Obvious Child
Chris Teague

How a funny movie on a controversial subject made it from page to screen

Last month, following a Maryland Film Festival screening of the new movie Obvious Child (in theaters June 6), an audience member asked what many in the room were probably wondering: Considering the fact that the entire plot of this romantic comedy revolves around an abortion, was it hard to get the movie made? Who would fund such a controversy-magnet? Who would distribute it?

But writer-director Gillian Robespierre — who, due to the success of Child, her first feature film, was scheduled to have her last day at a desk job the following Tuesday — shrugged off the assumption that such a feat would be particularly difficult. In fact, as she told the audience that day, the abortion plot line was less of an obstacle than the abundance of fart jokes were.

The line drew laughs, but Obvious Child didn’t exactly have a quick path to the big screen.

It started in 2007, when movies like Knocked Up and Juno, as well as the Gloucester pregnancy pact, had put unplanned pregnancy in the public consciousness. Robespierre found movies like Knocked Up funny, but didn’t think they depicted a realistic version of what unplanned pregnancy would be like for a real young woman. She and her friends decided to make a short film in which the unplanned pregnancy would lead to a result that they thought real-life women they knew would choose. The movie wouldn’t be glib about abortion, but would treat it as a safe and legal procedure that happens in the world and can be taken seriously without seeming like a tragedy. “I didn’t want to see a movie where she was riddled with guilt. I don’t think we make light of that emotionality,” Robespierre told TIME just before that Baltimore screening. “It’s a heavy moment in a person’s life and it’s not like she’s super excited about this, but she knows from the beginning that she’s not in the right place, emotionally or intellectually. All of those reasons make it an easy choice for her.”

That 2009 short, which starred a then-unknown Jenny Slate, was positively received in the feminist blogosphere, which encouraged Robespierre to move forward with a feature-length version, which would also star the now-better-known Slate, who is profiled in this week’s issue of TIME. Elisabeth Holm, who produced the film, had no hesitations about the controversial content. “It’s just a very empathetic portrait of a complex human experience,” she tells TIME. “So to me it was kind of a no-brainer.”

Not everyone was sure it would work. “I think for the first couple of years of talking about this project to people there was this reaction of: ‘Interesting. We’ll see if you can pull that off,'” she recalls. But when Holm and the other executive producer on the film, David Kaplan, began a concerted effort to seek financing, they found it easier than they had expected given the hot-button topic. They quickly cobbled together money from three companies and from grants. For those who passed on the too-controversial proposition? “I guess if the topic scared people off, they weren’t the people we were meant to work with.”

Those who weren’t squeamish knew what they were getting into. Expanding from a short to a feature meant more time to address the subject of abortion head-on, and making the effort to take steps like working with Planned Parenthood to ensure accuracy; the healthcare organization vetted the script for a scene that involves a consultation with a nurse, to be sure the dialogue was realistic. Robespierre was even allowed to film at a clinic, an experience that ended up being Robespierre’s favorite part of making the movie, the part where it felt like “everyone clicked together.”

“We always say that it’s not an agenda-driven movie,” says Robespierre, “but it is.”

The finished product premiered at Sundance this year with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign and was quickly snapped up by hip distributor A24 (the company behind films like Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring and Under the Skin) for a reported “low seven figures.” A24, no stranger to controversial films, may have seen an opportunity where others may have seen potential for scandal. Holm says: “They felt that [abortion] was for sure going to be a part of the conversation, and that was in part why they were excited to pick up the movie.”

Robespierre and Slate both say that reaction at festivals has been overwhelmingly positive — as has critical reaction — but exposing the movie to the world beyond feminist bloggers and film-festival attendees has, naturally, come with some negative feedback. Its creators and stars are prepared for that, but remain undaunted.

It helps that Obvious Child isn’t really a movie about abortion. It’s really about a life that gets messy, and the struggle to find confidence. To that end, the movie may just sound more controversial than it actually is. The film works hard to strike a balance between gravity and humor; Holm recalls that she and her colleagues decided in the ending room to keep a particularly uncomfortable joke toward the end of the movie in the film. “It is putting that toe over the line, and that’s an okay thing to do especially in moments of tension — we all just find relief in humor and laughing about these things. The film hopefully has enough heart and sincerity and humility that it earns those moments. But it was never our intention to just make something provocative for the sake of being provocative,” she says. “A24 felt that the film was really funny and sweet and relatable. Abortion was just one unique element.”

It was that realism and honesty — realistic characters, realistic friendships and, yes, a realistic look at the possible options a pregnant woman faces — that propelled the film from funding to filming to distribution. As Gaby Hoffmann, who plays the heroine’s best friend (and who recently made public her own real-life pregnancy), puts it, “Most of the women I know [have had an abortion] and it’s sort of despicable the way it’s been skirted around again and again and again and again, in culture, in media, where we have no problem showing gratuitous violence and sex — not that those two things are equal, because they’re not, but certainly plenty of sex scenes — and not the consequences of such. I didn’t give it a second thought at all. I think it’s so weird that it’s standing out as being a film that actually addresses abortion in a straightforward way. I can’t believe that that’s the case. It is, but it’s baffling to me.”

And standing out never hurts. So, back in Baltimore, Robespierre suggested a possible reason why it was easy to find financing: “It seemed,” she told the crowd, “like people were waiting for this story.”

TIME movies

REVIEW: Obvious Child: Do Not Abort This Movie!

Obvious Child
Chris Teague

Making light work of a subject most movies don't dare address, this romantic comedy boasts a sensational performance from star-of-the-future Jenny Slate

Donna Stern’s set at a Brooklyn comedy club hits the usual notes for a female standup artist: vagina vagina, bagel synagogue, underwear malfunction. etc. Her routine, though, is anything but. Donna (Jenny Slate) is a confessional comic, free-ranging through a private life she makes painfully public. She goes beyond “beating myself up”; she also tells all about her current boyfriend and his “working dick.” Exorcizing her romantic demons not in songs but in gossip with X-rated punch lines, Donna is a regular Taylor Schmutz.

The peril of confessional comedy is that, unless you’re the kid on the raft in Life of Pi, you’ll be telling the secrets of other people too, and they may not care to be part of your act. After the set, Donna’s beau (Paul Briganti) breaks up with her because he’s tired of their intimacies being turned into shtick. Also, he’s got a new girlfriend, whose texts he can’t help checking. Donna: “You’re looking at your phone while you’re dumping me!” Quickly rebounding by hooking up with a nice guy named Max (Jake Lacy), Donna loses her day job at the Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books store — yes, it exists, in Greenwich Village — and discovers she’s pregnant. Telling herself angrily, “You played Russian roulette with your vagina,” she visits Planned Parenthood and gets a date for the abortion: Valentine’s Day.

(WATCH: The Obvious Child trailer)

Can Gilliam Robespierre’s Obvious Child really be the first romantic comedy about a woman who wants an abortion? Ages ago, on network TV, Bea Arthur’s Maude did more than think pro-choice; she went through with it, a year before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. In the intervening 42 years, this legal surgery has been performed some 57 million times — not as often recently, but still about a million a year. In New York City in 2012, African-American women had more abortions than live births. It’s a common if controversial operation that perhaps one in three American women have undergone.

Yet American movies do handsprings to avoid the subject, even in stories about unwanted pregnancies. Indie films like Juno and Blue Valentine find excuses for its unwed or unhappy women to sidestep the procedure. In Judd Apatow’s ostensibly edgy Knocked Up, Seth Rogen impregnates Katherine Heigl on a drunken one-night stand, but neither party seriously considers abortion. Rogen’s buddy Jonah Hill won’t even say the word: “It rhymes with shmuh-shmortion.”

(READ: Avoiding the abortion question in Knocked Up)

So, almost by default, Obvious Child is “the abortion comedy” the way that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cannes’ top prize-winner in 2007, was called “the Romanian abortion film.” Donna — whether lonely and depressed or, on a good day, coddled and cuddled — is determined to end her pregnancy. The question of her going through with it takes second place to the suspense of, yes or no, telling Max he’s about to be a non-father. And both issues are less important to the success of this endearing little movie than Donna’s comic spin on her miseries and Slate’s bravura turn in the title role.

(READ: Corliss’s review of 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days)

With guy movies relying ever more heavily on testosterone antics, it’s only fair that women’s movies become not just estrogenic but estrogenerous. Obvious Child goes further than fluttering protectively over Donna’s problems; it provides a large support team to advise her. Each of her separated parents — comedy-writer dad (Richard Kind) and college professor mom (Polly Draper) — is allotted two scenes, one nurturing, the other less so. Donna’s gal pal (Gaby Hoffmann) and mandatory funny-sensitive gay friend (Gabe Liedman) also sing backup to her blues. And Max, from Word One, is the dream boy, decent and sympathetic, talking moonily of fatherhood. On a restaurant date, he holds a wrapped butter pat in his hands to thaw it for Donna. I think I’d want to bear his child. But she doesn’t.

Robespierre, who enlarged her 2009 short (also starring Slate) into this first feature, honors the femme-com conventions — bad beau and good beau, a heroine who fixates on her troubles instead of her assets — which allows the filmmaker to ignore a few dangling propositions in the plot. (Like, how did Donna, who proclaims herself broke, get the money to finance her Planned Parenthood visit?) But Robespierre’s direction of the many fine actors she assembled is assured, her sense of pacing nicely loose-limbed. The real inspiration is Donna, a complicated character who — given all the love she receives, and all her self-pity — could also be exasperating. Robespierre’s great stroke of fortune was picking Slate, a veteran of many comedy shows (SNL, Parks and Recreation, Kroll Show) for her first leading movie role.

(READ: Lily Rothman’s profile of Jenny Slate)

The actress has a the growly voice of a child trying to talk like an adult, and a lovely, perky, extraordinarily malleable face that can go flirtatious, frowny or beatific within seconds. In violent emotional colors, Slate paints a character whose comic gift is an affliction: if a piquant thought strikes Donna, she’ll blurt it out and damn the consequences. Being a truth-teller with Tourette’s is consistent with Donna’s roiling inner life. As likely to well up in tears as make somebody laugh, she’s part Sarah Silverman, part Maria Callas. Slate attacks the role — from the inside — with an acute ferocity that might subvert the movie’s mostly jaunty tone if she weren’t such a stupendous pleasure to watch.

The performance could be either a fluke or a star-is-born launch. Either way, in this pretty sharp abortion comedy, Slate is great.

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