Support the news

Before The Buffer Zone

This photo taken Dec. 17, 2013 shows anti-abortion protester Eleanor McCullen, of Boston, standing at the painted edge of a buffer zone outside a Planned Parenthood location in Boston. With her pleasant demeanor and grandmotherly mien, McCullen has become the new face of a decades-old fight between abortion opponents asserting their right to try to change the minds of women seeking abortions and abortion providers claiming that patients should be able to enter their facilities without being impeded or harassed. (Steven Senne/AP))MoreCloseclosemore
This photo taken Dec. 17, 2013 shows anti-abortion protester Eleanor McCullen, of Boston, standing at the painted edge of a buffer zone outside a Planned Parenthood location in Boston. With her pleasant demeanor and grandmotherly mien, McCullen has become the new face of a decades-old fight between abortion opponents asserting their right to try to change the minds of women seeking abortions and abortion providers claiming that patients should be able to enter their facilities without being impeded or harassed. (Steven Senne/AP))

Eleanor McCullen describes herself as 5-foot-1, a mother and grandmother. McCullen, who is 77, is lead plaintiff in a case that went in front of the U.S. Supreme Court this week. She explained to NPR’s Nina Totenberg "I should be able to walk and talk gently, lovingly, anywhere to anybody." Specifically, she wants to talk to women as they walk into Planned Parenthood in Boston.

I do not doubt McCullen's gentle approach. In pictures, she fits her self-description to a tee. But her suggestion that only loving grandmothers will approach patients if the buffer zones around Massachusetts Planned Parenthood clinics are removed is a blatant misrepresentation. I know this from experience.

I do not doubt McCullen's gentle approach ... But her suggestion that only loving grandmothers will approach patients if the buffer zones around Massachusetts Planned Parenthood clinics are removed is a blatant misrepresentation. I know this from experience.

I volunteered for several years as an escort for Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island. It was the early 90s. John Salvi’s rampage against two clinics in Brookline wouldn’t happen for another few years, but abortion providers operated under near-constant threat. Arsonists had been targeting clinics around the U.S. since the passage of Roe v. Wade and anti-abortion extremists were using stink bombs made of butrycic acid to disrupt clinic operations. In this context, being an escort was a limited but tangible way I could help women get access to health services, including abortion.

A group of protesters had figured out that abortions took place at the Providence clinic on Saturday mornings. Anyone driving in the vicinity would be treated to a line of posters and signs with gruesome images of bloody fetuses. Though there were exceptions on both sides, the protesters were mainly older men with a few women mixed in. Escorts were primarily women in our 20s and 30s. Our job was to blunt the impact of the protesters who, week after week, demonstrated their willingness to say anything to any woman of reproductive age.

Planned Parenthood of RI didn’t have a legally enforced buffer zone but it did have a private parking lot surrounded by an 8-foot chain-link fence. Wearing bright pink t-shirts that made us easy to identify, we would stand at the lot’s gate and when a patient stepped onto the public sidewalk, form a human circle around her. As our pink protective circle crossed the street to the clinic, protesters crowded in around us, shouting at patients and trying to push their pamphlets past us into patients’ hands.

Eleanor McCullen speaks with reporters outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, after the court heard arguments on a state of Massachusetts law setting a 35-foot (10 meter) protest-free zone outside abortion clinics. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Eleanor McCullen speaks with reporters outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, after the court heard arguments on a state of Massachusetts law setting a 35-foot (10 meter) protest-free zone outside abortion clinics. (Evan Vucci/AP)

When a car entered the parking lot, its passengers would see a cluster of pink t-shirts by the gate and a line of protesters with bloody posters in front of the building or along the fence line. The scene elicited different reactions in different women. Some emerged from their cars crying. Some tried to act nonchalant. Women who had a boyfriend, friend, or parent with them often clutched their companion’s arm while the protesters yelled and pleaded. “You don’t have to do this!” “Your baby loves you!” “They murder babies in there!”

To borrow Eleanor McCullen’s words, I never saw a protester speak “gently” or “lovingly” to a patient. I suppose McCullen would tell me I was part of the reason why. After all, if the escorts hadn’t been there, the protesters could have placed themselves in the patients’ paths and spoken in any tone they wished. But the fact is, the patients who braved the bizarre, dehumanizing scene at Planned Parenthood on Saturday mornings chose to be there. They had access to readily available information from groups on both sides of the issue: Planned Parenthood one side and Right to Life on the other. There was no shortage of material on abortion in the early 90s, and there isn’t today. In fact, the Internet makes it easier to find than ever.

Removing the buffer zones that currently give patients and staff of Planned Parenthood in Massachusetts a little bit of breathing room would do a lot more than ensure the right to free speech for a few gentle, loving grandmothers. It would remove a layer of protection from harassment by anyone, male or female, large or small, gentle or menacing, who chooses to force their beliefs on another person.

Protester Frank Porter stands amid anti-abortion signs just beyond the 35-foot perimeter outside of a Planned Parenthood office on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Protester Frank Porter stands amid anti-abortion signs just beyond the 35-foot perimeter outside of a Planned Parenthood office on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Related:

Joanne Barker Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Joanne Barker is a healthcare writer who writes regularly for WebMD. Her essays have been published by Boston Magazine, The Drum, and Grub Street Daily.

More…

+Join the discussion
Share
TwitterfacebookEmail

More from Cognoscenti

Support the news