Buffer Zones are Not a First Amendment Infringement

by Lucas Witherspoon

Pious anti-abortion activists have long been legally allowed to camp out in front of health clinics that provide lawful abortions in an effort to dissuade those entering against terminating their pregnancies. In 2007, Massachusetts enacted a law that dictated a 35-foot “buffer zone” outside of abortion clinics, so as to curb harassment and the potential for violence, as in the case of anti-abortionist John Salvi, who in 1994 carried out shooting rampages at two Boston-area Planned Parenthood facilities. On Wednesday, though, the Supreme Court heard arguments from plaintiffs who argued that these buffer zones violated their First Amendment rights.

It seems like the invocation of the First Amendment has become a near-quotidian occurrence as of late, so let’s examine the actual text of the it:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The verbatim text only guarantees American citizens the right to peaceably assemble, not the right to expose people to hostile coercion, which in itself is illegal. Eleanor McCullen, the lead plaintiff in the case, points to the fact that she seeks to “counsel” those entering the abortion clinic, and while that may be the case for her individually, by and large, demonstrators generally avoid the “counseling” method in lieu of shout-shaming people into relenting.

The line between rabid intimidation and what’s considered legal assault is a fine one that is all-too-often crossed; all it takes to constitute assault is verbalized antagonism coupled with a perceived threat of physical harm, which can be as minute an action as a raised hand. Additionally, anti-abortion activists don’t have the right to obstruct women who may be going in for other services, such as a Pap smear or contraception. If anything, contentious protestors violate the legal rights of the people entering the clinic.

Moreover, the “counseling” anti-abortionists give only advocates not having an abortion. Are those people also willing to pay for all of the unwanted children they so staunchly defend or is their opposition to feticide limited solely to verbal protests? Because it’s a safe bet most of the women seeking an abortion have taken into account the fact they’re fiscally unable (not to mention emotionally so) to properly care for a child, meaning the burden of paying for the de trop children is going to fall on society. In theory, it’s nice for anti-abortionists to know they’ve “saved a life,” but realistically, most of them aren’t even informed as to when life, per scientific standards, actually begins, nor do they pragmatically consider the economic and social factors that come with sticking unwilling and unfit parents with an undesired child.

Dissolving buffer zones outside of women’s health clinics would also bring into question similar restrictions that have been placed around funerals, political conventions, etc. elsewhere in the country. Essentially, if you want to get rid of buffer zones around female reproductive clinics, you are in essence subsequently arguing in favor of the dissolution of all buffer zones, meaning if, for example, the Westboro Baptist Church wanted to protest the funeral of a soldier, they would no longer be legally required to demonstrate from a distance.

The First Amendment guarantees citizens the right to irenic gather, but this is not an absolute right, just as most of the other rights granted in the Constitution are not infinite. Therefore, limits can be set for protestors in the interest of civil obedience. The farcical notion that the First Amendment is boundless points to widespread incoherence when it comes to interpreting the Constitution as a whole. For a document so many people see as a dire American component, a majority don’t seem to know much about it.