Cities and states across the United States have been responding differently to the US Supreme Court’s decision in June to strike down Massachusetts’ 35-foot abortion clinic buffer zone in McCullen v. Coakley, with some jurisdictions suspending their buffer zone laws and others continuing to enforce the protective measures.
The McCullen decision invalidated only one statute: a fixed, 35-foot buffer zone law in Massachusetts. In making its decision, the Court found that this specific Massachusetts law was unconstitutional, not that state and local governments could never enact measures to protect patients, doctors, and staff from harassment and intimidation outside of reproductive health clinics. In addition, the Court did not overturn a previous buffer zone case, Hill v. Colorado, that upheld a statute prohibiting a person – within 100 feet of a clinic entrance – from approaching within 8 feet of another person, without that person’s consent.
After the ruling, the Attorney General of New York, Eric Schneiderman, issued a statement clarifying that the McCullen decision did not implicate his state’s clinic buffer zone laws. Seventeen counties in New York state have buffer zones as a result of a court injunction. Additionally, New York City, encompassing 5 additional counties, has a 15-foot buffer zone law. Noting that anti-abortion activists had attempted to assert that McCullen invalidated all buffer zones, Schneiderman issued an open letter to clarify the law.
“We will not allow activists to use a narrowly targeted Supreme Court decision as an opportunity to create confusion about the critical protections here in New York,” wrote Schneiderman. “Not only do New York State’s clinic protection laws remain completely in place, I am committed to working with our partners in law enforcement to ensure they are fully enforced.”
Other state and local governments, however, have – reluctantly and often in the context of ongoing legal disputes – either repealed, in the case of Portland, Maine, or suspended enforcement of their buffer zone laws. The city of Madison, Wisconsin recently announced that it would not enforce its buffer zone law, one that is similar to that in Hill v. Colorado, and New Hampshire has stopped enforcing its 25-foot buffer zone. Both jurisdictions are in the middle of legal challenges to their laws.
In the wake of the ruling in McCullen, the state of Massachusetts enacted a new state law to protect access to reproductive health facilities. The new law, signed by Governor Deval Patrick last week, went into effect immediately.
“Patients, doctors, and healthcare workers are under siege at clinics across the nation,” said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal in a press release issued on the day of oral argument in McCullen. “Simply put, safety buffer zones help prevent violence and allow women to safely access critical reproductive health services.” Clinic safety zones have been a vital tool to help ensure that patients, doctors, and healthcare workers can enter reproductive healthcare facilities without harassment, intimidation, or violence.
For over 20 years, the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) has tracked incidents of violence, harassment, and intimidation at women’s health clinics in the US. FMF brought the first lawsuit in the nation on buffer zones to the US Supreme Court in 1994. That case, Madsen v. Women’s Health Center, established the constitutionality of an injunction creating a clinic safety buffer zone in Florida.
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Media Resources: Feminist Newswire 7/31/14, 6/26/14, 1/15/14; Associated Press 7/24/14; Portland Press Herald 7/11/14; Attorney General Eric Schneiderman 7/10/14, 6/26/14; Wisconsin State Journal 7/3/14