BOSTON — Outside the Planned Parenthood clinic on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston Thursday, a random passerby, Michel Leupierre, confronted anti-abortion activist Ray Neary.
“You’re not even recognized! Where are you recognized?” Leupierre shouted, telling Neary that he wasn’t recognized by the U.S. Constitution and ordering him to leave the women entering the clinic alone. Neary responded that he was protected by the First Amendment.
Leupierre was unaware that the U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled that protesters have the right under the free speech clause to state their case, without restriction, in front of clinics that perform abortions.
“Every child deserves a birthday! Give life a chance!” Neary said in response to the heckling.
But he still wasn’t ready to venture inside the bright yellow line of the now-illegal buffer zone, which he vehemently opposes.
“When they tell me that I’ve got to stand this distance from counseling an individual to protect a newly created human life, it makes no sense,” Neary said, “and the Founding Fathers would certainly agree with me on that.”
The Supreme Court, at least, agreed unanimously on that point. The justices ruled that the 35-foot buffer zone around Massachusetts abortion clinics violates the Constitution.
Attorney General Martha Coakley calls the high court’s decision overturning the 2007 Massachusetts buffer zone law “disappointing.”
“With today’s decision, that fight begins again, and we are vowed to make sure that we will continue here in Massachusetts to provide for the protections that this decision still leaves,” Coakley said at an afternoon press conference.
In a statement, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts said the high court’s decision shows “a troubling level of disregard for American women, who should be able to make carefully considered, private medical decisions without running a gauntlet of harassing and threatening protesters.”
Marty Walz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, added: “We will be looking at municipal ordinances, as well as existing state laws, to see what tools are available to us, and then we will also look at whether additional laws are possible.”
Gov. Deval Patrick said he’s seeking legal counsel to find a way to “fix” the situation before the end of the legislative session next month.
Northeastern University law professor Martha Davis, who was part of a legal team that argued a mid-1990s case before the Supreme Court in support of buffer zones in New York, predicts that Massachusetts abortion clinics will beef up security and experience more confrontations. as a result of Thursday’s ruling.
“What I think we’re going to see is more criminal prosecutions, and the police presence is going to lend itself to that,” Davis said. “And then, in addition, the state is going to want to make a record that the criminal prosecutions and the individual policing are not sufficiently effective — and if they can create that record then they’ll be in a position to go back to the buffer zone idea.”
Massachusetts might be able to enact a smaller buffer zone that excludes public sidewalks and rights of way, Davis said.
The victor in Thursday’s ruling is Eleanor McCullen of Newton, the lead petitioner among seven plaintiffs who took the case to the Supreme Court. She said she’s delighted by the decision but somewhat surprised that it was unanimous. She also said it restores her hope and faith in the U.S. and its free speech protections.
But the decision won’t change what McCullen does outside the Boston Planned Parenthood office two days a week. She insists she doesn’t harass or intimidate. Instead, she says, she tries to offer services, like rides to a free pregnancy help clinic, as well as financial support and baby showers.
“I just say, ‘Can I help you this morning? What can I do?’ I offer hope and help and love,” McCullen explained.
“Many people say, ‘We need help. What can you do?’ ” she said. “Before, it was so far away, I couldn’t achieve an intimate feeling. This way I can build up a trust. People know when I’m speaking to them one-on-one that I care.”
- Related: Supreme Court Voids Mass. Abortion Clinic Buffer Zone Law
- PDF: The Supreme Court’s Slip Opinion
- 1/15/14: Justices Appear Divided On Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones
- 1/15/14: Liam Lowney To Share Sister’s Voice At Buffer Zone Hearing
- 1/14/14: Abortion Clinic Buffer Zone Faces Court Challenge
- 1/14/14: The Case For And Against Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones
- 6/24/13: Supreme Court To Revisit Mass. ‘Buffer Zone’ Law