Mass. abortion clinic buffer zone law is debated in US Supreme Court

WASHINGTON — An attorney for the state of Massachusetts defended the state’s abortion clinic buffer zone law today in the nation’s highest court, saying the law properly protects the free speech rights of protesters, while at the same time ensuring public safety.

“The statute is not focused on that person’s speech. The statute is focused on what they’re doing in the buffer zone,” Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Miller told the US Supreme Court.

The law, passed in 2007, keeps demonstrators 35 feet away from the entrances of the clinics. Proponents of the law cited a history of protests that blocked clinic entrances and intimidated people who were going inside.

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Demonstrators have challenged the law, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court. They say the law interferes with their peaceful, quiet speech and their attempts to personally appeal to people going into the clinic.

One of the petitioners in the case, Eleanor McCullen, has argued that she has successfully persuaded women to choose against abortion after having quiet, meaningful conversations with them, but that the 35-foot buffer zone interferes with her rights to communicate with them.

Miller, the attorney representing the state, was peppered with questions by the justices.

“This is not a protest case. It’s not to protest abortion. They want to talk to the women,” said Justice Antonin Scalia. “It’s a counseling case; it’s not a protest case.”

Miller responded, “Your Honor, it’s a congestion case.”

The 2007 law, the Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act, replaced a 2000 law that kept protesters from approaching within six feet of a person once they reached within 18 feet of an abortion clinic. Police said that that law was difficult to enforce.

A federal district judge and the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit have each twice upheld the 2007 law.