News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

“Buffer zone” law for abortion clinics declared unconstitutional

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.321.7273.1368/e (Published 02 December 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:1368
  1. Scott Gottlieb
  1. New York

    A US federal judge last week struck down a new state law that had created a buffer zone around abortion clinics to keep protesters away from patients, accusing Massachusetts's lawmakers of trampling on abortion opponents' right to free speech.

    US district judge Edward Harrington ruled that the law was not constitutional because it allowed employees and agents of the clinics, such as volunteers, to approach patients outside the clinics but prohibited protesters from coming within six feet (2 metres) of patients who were within 18 feet of a clinic entrance.

    “Pro-life advocates,” Judge Harrington said, “must be given as equal an opportunity as their opponents to express to those seeking an abortion their sincere message of respect for the sanctity of innocent human life.”

    Diane Luby, president of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, a state branch of a national organisation that supports abortion rights for women, said that she believed Judge Harrington had misinterpreted the law and that she found the language of his ruling “very disturbing.”

    Lawmakers in Massachusetts had pushed for the legislation after a gunman went on a rampage at two Brookline clinics in 1994, killing two women. After a series of legal wrangling, the law finally went into effect on 10 November.

    Police had already painted white lines outside clinics in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield to mark a boundary that “sidewalk counsellors” could not cross in their efforts to persuade women not to have abortions.

    In striking down the buffer zone law, Judge Harrington said that the law showed its true intent by exempting clinic workers from a portion of the law creating a 6 foot “bubble” around patients unless they gave consent to closer contact.

    “These individuals, because of their personal relationship with the abortion clinic, have a strong financial interest or philosophic incentive to counsel the listener to undergo an abortion, and they constitute very zealous advocates for this controversial procedure,” he said.

    Massachusetts state representative Paul Demakis, one of the law's main sponsors, said that the legislation's intent was improved safety for patients. “This is not a situation where you have an ambivalent person deciding whether or not she's going to decide to get an abortion and you're allowing one side an advantage over the other,” he said.

    The legal team that challenged the law said that the ban went too far in infringing protesters' rights to discuss their beliefs. “This law was clearly directed at one side of the abortion controversy,” said attorney David Duncan, who argued to overturn the law on behalf of three abortion opponents who had worked as sidewalk counsellors outside Massachusetts abortion clinics. One of the counsellors filing the suit said that the law prevented her from quietly trying to dissuade women from having abortions.

    Abortion rights advocates urged the attorney general for Massachusetts, Thomas Reilly, to appeal the ruling. He has not made a decision. “We're disappointed with the court's decision,” said Mr Reilly's spokeswoman, Ann Donlan. “The legislation was designed to promote the public safety of everyone involved. We still firmly believe that the law accomplished that aim in a way that did not violate any person's constitutional rights.”