Some choice supporters tout
buffer zones as a way to lessen the tension caused by protests at abortion clinics. But critics say buffers would be a dangerous
by Ana Cabrera
Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island
The most visceral images from protests outside abortion clinics are familiar to
those on both sides of the debate: pro-life demonstrators shouting at women
entering the clinics, flashing grisly images of aborted fetuses and, in some
cases, serving as human obstacles by using U-shaped Kryptonite bicycle locks to
bind their bodies to a nearby post or fence.
Depending on one's view, the more aggressive of the anti-choice protesters are
either well-intentioned activists or dangerous, misguided zealots. But the
legal right of abortion opponents to peacefully protest directly outside
clinics has never been in doubt.
That would change, however, if a bill in the Massachusetts Legislature, which
seeks to create buffer zones around clinics that provide abortions, becomes the
first state law of its kind in the nation. The legislation sponsored by by
Representative Paul Demakis, (D-Boston), and Senator Susan Fargo, (D-Lincoln),
would make it illegal for anyone to stage a protest within 25 feet of the
driveways, entrances and exits of clinics.
It's no surprise that the progress of this bill, scheduled for a vote this
week by the joint Criminal Justice Committee, is being carefully monitored in
Rhode Island by both sides of the abortion debate.
Demakis and other proponents tout buffer zones as a way to lessen tensions
around abortion clinics while maintaining the right of pro-lifers to speak out.
"There is a whole range of conduct by protesters, from nuns quietly praying to
people participating in harassment," Demakis asserts, "and chasing someone as
they walk into a clinic is not free speech."
Opponents, though, cite the rambunctious tradition of American protest --
demonstrations against the Vietnam war, for example -- in describing buffer
zones as an ill-founded restriction on free speech. Critics also say the buffer
zone bill would create more rights for one group by stripping others of their
First Amendment rights. In the process, it would undermine the right of people
to assemble peacefully -- one of the basic tenets of the Constitution.
"The bill is most likely unconstitutional," says Steven Brown, executive
director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"People have a right to engage in a peaceful protest, whether in front of an
abortion clinic, the State House, a hospital or any place of business, as long
as it's on public property."
State Senator John Celona, (D-North Providence), a pro-life advocate, also
thinks the Massachusetts bill is unconstitutional. He believes passage of the
bill would lead to similar bills, which would restrict a host of other First
Amendment rights. "What would stop anyone from setting up buffer zones around
any other building, such as the State House?" he asks. "We could have a hot
bill here in the General Assembly, and would that mean everyone has to stand
back 25 feet?"
Celona wonders how such a measure would have fared during the height of the
state banking crisis. "Just think back to what that was like around here, with
people marching up here in droves," he says. "Can you imagine what would have
ensued if those people were told to stand back from this building?"
But although existing state and federal laws criminalize attacks, threats and
efforts to bar access to abortion clinics, proponents cite the violent
extremists of the pro-life movement in explaining their support for buffer
zones. The murder last October by a sniper of an abortion doctor, Barnett
Slepian, in his home in upstate New York, was a stark reminder of the physical
threats faced by some choice supporters.
"In the climate we have today, we need deterrents to violence at the clinics,"
says Susan Closter-Godoy, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island.
"And while we fully support free speech, there are circumstances where there
may be physical obstructions and some dangers posed to workers at clinics. So I
think some of these measures should be seriously considered."
Closter-Godoy says she is surprised that a buffer zone bill has not already
become law in light of the 1994 attack by John Salvi, who shot and killed
Shannon Lowney and Lee Anne Nichols, two workers at a reproductive health
clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts. But while Demakis says, "Setting buffers
provides a certain amount of protection," he concedes they are unlikely to stop
someone who is determined to commit violence.
The Demakis-Fargo bill, which would not affect hospitals, raises some complex
dilemmas in the minds of lawmakers. Interestingly enough, Demakis points out
that some of the 80 co-sponsors of his bill are pro-lifers who share his
viewpoint on the issue. Representative Kathleen Teahan, (D-Whitman), is one of
Teahan often participates in anti-abortion rallies. "I only believe in
peaceful protest," she says, "but I know that people can get overly emotional
about this issue and threaten somebody. Even though I don't approve of the fact
that women are getting abortions, I feel that we have to provide them a margin
of safety while they are trying to enter the clinic."
Conversely, one Rhode Island legislator known for her pro-choice views says
her main concern is the Constitutionality of any buffer zone proposal. "I am in
favor of anything that would protect a patient's right to access," says Senator
Rhoda Perry (D-Providence), "but the right to free speech, the freedom of
assembly -- that's the basis of our legal system and must not be
Elsewhere across the country, two types of measures have been debated to set
limits on pro-life protesters: a buffer zone around the facility itself, and a
so-called personal "bubble zone," which would encompass any patient or employee
of a clinic as they walked, for example, to or from the building and into their
Opponents say that personal bubble zones prevent pro-lifers from quietly
approaching patients at clinics and talking with them. Such buffer zones force
them, they say, to shout their message across a greater distance, creating a
loud atmosphere around a clinic and reducing the effectiveness of their
attempts to communicate.
Proponents say personal bubble zones give patients and workers at least a
margin of safety by preventing protesters from literally getting in their face.
Such comfort room is reason enough to support the creation of buffer zones,
But the fault lines in the debate over buffer zones has led to plethora of
interpretations, which vary on a case-by-case basis.
Take the case of Schenk v. Pro Choice Network of Western New York, in
which the Supreme Court struck down 15-foot personal bubble zones for the
workers and patients of that facility. The court, however, upheld 15-foot
buffer zones around the clinic's doorways, driveways and parking lot entrances.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist argued that the personal bubble zones were at
odds with free speech interests, but he allowed that it would still be possible
for pro-choicers to get their points across even within the confines of a
15-foot buffer zone.
The situation in the New York case began when the clinic got a restraining
order against a number of pickets, who were staging peaceful protests.
Rehnquist opined that the buffer zones still allowed pro-lifers to get their
message across using non-violent tactics, thus guaranteeing their right to free
In a Pensacola, Florida, case, US District Court Judge Lacey Collier upheld
personal bubble zones that would keep anyone at least eight feet from patients
and workers at abortion clinics. Those zones were established following the
deaths in Pensacola in 1993 and 1994 of Dr. David Gunn, Dr. John Bayard
Britton, and a volunteer, James Barret, who were shot and killed by
opponents of abortion. Lacey ruled that the personal zones were established
by local ordinance in response to the violence and, as such, were not a
violation of free speech.
But Senator Catherine Graziano, (D-Providence), a vocal pro-lifer, says bills
such as the one sponsored by Demakis are tantamount to a modern-day version of
the Salem witch hunts. "I think this is another move on the part of the
pro-choice people to make it look like the people who are pro-life are
dangerous and violent," she says, "and they are not."
In the gamut of protest methods used by pro-life demonstrators, some typically
stand outside of abortion clinics and make overtures in a last-minute attempt
to change women's minds about going through with the procedure. Other
protesters are more confrontational, attempting to unnerve woman who are
already facing a difficult situation.
Some of these methods are visual, such as when demonstrators display graphic
photographs of what they say is an aborted fetus. Closter-Godoy says she has
also seen pickets darting in and out of traffic in front of the Planned
Parenthood clinic on Richmond Street in Providence, causing anxious moments for
the drivers and creating a disruptive atmosphere. And while some of the
protesters attempt to communicate with the patient in subdued tones, others
shout angry accusations and use foul language.
Things have quieted on the local protest front compared with a few years back,
when members of the pro-life group Operation Rescue regularly staged
demonstrations, sometimes using Kryptonite locks to chain themselves to gates
and thereby forcing women to run a gauntlet to enter the clinic building. The
free-for-all atmosphere of such protests did little to foster the credibility
Circumstances have since changed dramatically, says Donna LeBoeuf of Rhode
Island Right to Life, who resembles a typical '90s businesswoman with her
articulate delivery and attractive attire. Unlike the methods used by Operation
Rescue in earlier days, the style of pro-life demonstrators has become more
sophisticated and geared to acceptance by the mainstream. If LeBoeuf and
members of her organization want to make a point, they are more likely to be
spotted at the State House than staging an unruly protest at a clinic.
"We want to participate only in legal, peaceful activities," LeBoeuf says.
"Legislation like the one proposed in Boston would make it difficult for us to
do that. If you set up a 25-foot limit, then our people are forced to talk
louder in order to get our message across. It would make it impossible for us
to hand them [women seeking an abortion] a piece of literature."
LeBoeuf thinks the proposed Massachusetts measure is unconstitutional, and
calls it "a very heavy-handed thing to do to a particular group." If such a
bill were to be introduced in Rhode Island, LeBoeuf says she would spend most
of her time at committee meetings, attempting to persuade lawmakers to reject
As to the violent incidents, LeBoeuf says she does not condone them. "When we
have seen these occasions of terrible violence, a 25-foot buffer zone would not
have stopped those incidents," she says. "A buffer zone won't stop someone who
is going to act in a violent manner."
LeBoeuf points out that the tactics used by R.I. Right to Life are similar to
those used by other pressure groups. "Take a look at Greenpeace," she says,
referring to the international environmental group which uses brash, sometimes
illegal, interventions and public stunts to publicize issues of concern to the
group. "No one argues with them."
But for Closter-Godoy, the ongoing pickets outside Planned Parenthood remain a
safety concern, even if the number of demonstrators has dwindled from the
massive protests of the '80s. "The numbers don't matter," she says. "It's the
manner in which these people comport themselves. This is a heavy traffic area.
What will happen if one of the demonstrators caused an accident and people got
hurt? This has to stop."
Senator V. Susan Sosnowski, (D-South Kingstown), a pro-lifer, says she would
support buffer zone legislation such as the bill being debated in Boston. "I've
got mixed feelings about it," says Sosnowski, "because I do agree with the
freedom of speech issue. However, when it comes to the safety of my
constituents, then I would support such a measure. The amount of space we are
talking about -- 25 feet -- really would not make much of a difference in some
circumstances, but it is better than nothing at all."
But for the ACLU's Steven Brown and other opponents, even a 25-foot buffer
would constitute an unacceptable assault on free speech. "Anti-abortion
protesters," Brown says, "have a clear First Amendment right to express their
views to the people they feel [who are] most in need to hear it."