US Supreme Court agrees to hear challenge to Mass. abortion clinic buffer zone law

The US Supreme Court has agreed to consider a challenge to the Massachusetts abortion clinic buffer zone law.

The Supreme Court issued an order today granting a writ of certiorari to the petitioners, who are objecting to the law that keeps abortion protesters a set distance away from abortion clinics.

The high court’s action comes after a federal appeals court in January upheld the law, saying it protected the rights of patients while, at the same time, allowing others to express their opinions.

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Philip Moran, a Salem lawyer who represents the seven petitioners, said the Massachusetts law is far more restrictive than similar buffer zone regulations, and said it effectively prevents people from speaking with women as they enter the clinic.

“You can’t stand outside 35 feet and communicate with people,” he said. “You have to have eye contact.”

Moran said petitioners were thrilled by the court’s decision to hear the case, and said they are confident the law will be struck down. “We’re delighted,” he said. “We think we have a good shot.”

Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office has defended the law, said in a statement, “The Massachusetts buffer zone law strikes the appropriate balance to ensure a woman’s right to safe access to health care facilities while preserving First Amendment rights. We look forward to defending this vitally important legislation before the Supreme Court.”

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit said in its January ruling, “Few subjects have proven more controversial in modern times than the issue of abortion. ... The nation is sharply divided about the morality of the practice and its place in a caring society. But the right of the state to take reasonable steps to ensure the safe passage of persons wishing to enter health care facilities cannot seriously be questioned.

“The Massachusetts statute at issue here is a content-neutral, narrowly tailored time-place-manner regulation that protects the rights of prospective patients and clinic employees without offending the First Amendment rights of others,” said the opinion, written by Judge Bruce M. Selya, who heard the case, along with two other judges.

The appeals court ruling affirmed a decision by US District Judge Joseph L. Tauro in February 2012.

The law creates a 35-foot fixed buffer zone around the driveways and entrances of clinics. The lawsuit, Eleanor McCullen et al v. Martha Coakley et al, was brought by people who say they regularly engaged in antiabortion counseling outside three clinics.

The challenge to the law was the latest in a series. “This case does not come to us as a stranger,” the appeals court said, leading off its decision.

The court twice upheld an earlier version of the law, in 2001 and 2004. After the Legislature revised the law in 2007, the appeals court upheld it again in 2009. More challenges were launched in Tauro’s court. Tauro rejected them, but the plaintiffs appealed.

Massachusetts began moving toward a buffer zone law after the slayings of two clinic workers in Brookline in 1994 shocked the nation. John C. Salvi III, a 22-year-old abortion opponent, shot two clinic workers to death and wounded several others. Salvi later committed suicide in prison while serving two life sentences.