US top court mulls abortion clinic buffer zone

By Chantal Valery, AFP

WASHINGTON–More than 40 years after legalizing abortion in the United States, the Supreme Court Wednesday appeared skeptical of a law creating a buffer zone at abortion clinics, where opponents want to be able to protest freely. The case, which combines the controversial question of abortion with the always sensitive issue of freedom of speech, takes up a Massachusetts law that forbids anyone to come within 10 meters of women’s health clinics where abortions are performed, unless they have business there.

Anti-abortion advocates have set up long-running protests outside many such clinics, some brandishing pictures of aborted fetuses, some handing out informational pamphlets and some suggesting alternatives to abortions to women arriving at the clinic. In extreme cases, there have been violent attacks on staff and doctors. Two doctors who provided abortions were killed in 1994 in Massachusetts. But since 2007, there have been no charges in the state for legal infractions by protesters around women’s health clinics. Anti-abortion activists say the law violates their First Amendment right to free expression. Outside the Supreme Court building in Washington Wednesday, just a handful of activists from each side showed up with signs. “Keep abortion legal,” read one from a feminist group, while another, from a demonstrator wielding a Bible, read “Supreme Court, reject bubble zone unjust law!” During an hour-long hearing, the justices questioned the need for such a buffer zone, discussing its size and wondering if the state couldn’t find another way to protect clinic employees and patients as they come and go. “It’s a dead speech zone,” said conservative justice Antonin Scalia.

The activists “want to talk to the women who are about to get abortions. It’s a counseling case, not a protest case,” said Scalia, who asked “What’s the alternative? Standing 30 feet away and yelling?”