Called "An Act to Promote Public Safety and Protect Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities," the bill was proposed in response to a June Supreme Court ruling that dealt a blow to buffer zone advocates.
On Monday, the Massachusetts Senate filed a bill designed to strengthen the safety of individuals entering and exiting abortion clinics in the state. Called “An Act to Promote Public Safety and Protect Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities,” the bill was proposed in response to a June Supreme Court ruling that dealt a blow to buffer zone advocates.
SD 2106 was drafted with the support of the Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, and Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick. “Women must be able to access reproductive health care free from intimidation and threats,” Coakley said in a statement. “This bill protects those patients, and the employees providing their care,” added Gov. Patrick.
Pro-choice advocates say the bill would aim to protect people entering and leaving clinics, but would do so within the legal standards established by the Supreme Court’s ruling last month, which struck down a 2007 Massachusetts law that established a 35-foot protest-free buffer zone outside of clinics.
Specifically, the bill would ensure clear and safe passage to and from a facility by making it illegal to impede access, and by prohibiting the use of force to prevent access. Law enforcement would have the power to disperse groups of two or more people when they impede access to a facility. The dispersed group would then be required to stay 25 feet from the entrance for eight hours. Additionally, protesters would be prohibited from interfering with cars that are leaving or parking at a clinic.
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Sen. Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester), the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement that the state must act quickly to address the safety concerns of people entering and exiting clinics.
“The Supreme Court’s recent decision has left Massachusetts in an emergency situation regarding staff and patients of reproductive health care centers,” said Sen. Chandler. “The Commonwealth has had actual experience with violence against staff and patients. Therefore, it is crucial to provide protections for the void left by the Supreme Court’s decision before further harassment, intimidation and violence occurs.”
In 1994, a receptionist at a Planned Parenthood in Massachusetts was shot dead by an anti-choice activist. After murdering her and wounding three others, the killer went straight to another clinic, where he shot dead the receptionist there and wounded two others. He was later lauded by anti-choice supporters, including Donald Spitz, the director of Pro-Life Virginia, who shouted “Thank you for what you did” into a megaphone.
According to the National Abortion Federation, between 1977 and 2013 there were at least 6,849 violent attacks against abortion providers in the United States and Canada, including eight murders, 42 bombings, 181 cases of arson, and 100 acid attacks.
University of Denver's Joshua Wilson argues that prosecutions of abortion-clinic protesters and the decline of "rescue" groups in the 1980s and 1990s boosted conservative anti-abortion legal activism nationwide.
There is nothing startling or even new in University of Denver Professor Joshua C. Wilson’s The New States of Abortion Politics (Stanford University Press). But the concise volume—just 99 pages of text—pulls together several recent trends among abortion opponents and offers a clear assessment of where that movement is going.
As Wilson sees it, anti-choice activists have moved from the streets, sidewalks, and driveways surrounding clinics to the courts. This, he argues, represents not only a change of agitational location but also a strategic shift. Like many other scholars and advocates, Wilson interprets this as a move away from pushing for the complete reversal of Roev. Wade and toward a more incremental, state-by-state winnowing of access to reproductive health care. Furthermore, he points out that it is no coincidence that this maneuver took root in the country’s most socially conservative regions—the South and Midwest—before expanding outward.
Wilson credits two factors with provoking this metamorphosis. The first was congressional passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in 1994, legislation that imposed penalties on protesters who blocked patients and staff from entering or leaving reproductive health facilities. FACE led to the establishment of protest-free buffer zones at freestanding clinics, something anti-choicers saw as an infringement on their right to speak freely.
Not surprisingly, reproductive rights activists—especially those who became active in the 1980s and early 1990s as a response to blockades, butyric acid attacks, and various forms of property damageat abortion clinics—saw the zones as imperative. In their experiences, buffer zones were the only way to ensure that patients and staff could enter or leave a facility without being harassed or menaced.
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The second factor, Wilson writes, involved the reduced ranks of the so-called “rescue” movement, a fundamentalist effort led by the Lambs of Christ, Operation Rescue, Operation Save America, and Priests for Life. While these groups are former shadows of themselves, the end of the rescue era did not end anti-choice activism. Clinics continue to be picketed, and clinicians are still menaced. In fact, local protesters and groups such as 40 Days for Life and the Center for Medical Progress (which has exclusively targeted Planned Parenthood) negatively affect access to care. Unfortunately, Wilson does not tackle these updated forms of harassment and intimidation—or mention that some of the same players are involved, albeit in different roles.
Instead, he argues the two threads—FACE and the demise of most large-scale clinic protests—are thoroughly intertwined. Wilson accurately reports that the rescue movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s resulted in hundreds of arrests as well as fines and jail sentences for clinic blockaders. This, he writes, opened the door to right-wing Christian attorneys eager to make a name for themselves by representing arrested and incarcerated activists.
But the lawyers’ efforts did not stop there. Instead, they set their sights on FACE and challenged the statute on First Amendment grounds. As Wilson reports, for almost two decades, a loosely connected group of litigators and activists worked diligently to challenge the buffer zones’ legitimacy. Their efforts finally paid off in 2014, when the U.S. Supreme Court found that “protection against unwelcome speech cannot justify restrictions on the use of public streets and sidewalks.” In short, the decision in McCullen v. Coakley found that clinics could no longer ask the courts for blanket prohibitions on picketing outside their doors—even when they anticipated prayer vigils, demonstrations, or other disruptions. They had to wait until something happened.
This, of course, was bad news for people in need of abortions and other reproductive health services, and good news for the anti-choice activists and the lawyers who represented them. Indeed, the McCullen case was an enormous win for the conservative Christian legal community, which by the early 2000s had developed into a network united by opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights.
The New States of Abortion Politics zeroes in on one of these legal groups: the well-heeled and virulently anti-choice Alliance Defending Freedom, previously known as the Alliance Defense Fund. It’s a chilling portrait.
According to Wilson, ADF’s budget was $40 million in 2012, a quarter of which came from the National Christian Foundation, an Alpharetta, Georgia, entity that claims to have distributed $6 billion in grants to right-wing Christian organizing efforts since 1982.
By any measure, ADF has been effective in promoting its multipronged agenda: “religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and the family.” In practical terms, this means opposing LGBTQ inclusion, abortion, marriage equality, and the right to determine one’s gender identity for oneself.
The group’s tentacles run deep. In addition to a staff of 51 full-time lawyers and hundreds of volunteers, a network of approximately 3,000 “allied attorneys” work in all 50 states to boost ADF’s agenda. Allies are required to sign a statement affirming their commitment to the Trinitarian Statement of Faith, a hallmark of fundamentalist Christianity that rests on a literal interpretation of biblical scripture. They also have to commit to providing 450 hours of pro bono legal work over three years to promote ADF’s interests—no matter their day job or other obligations. Unlike the American Bar Association, which encourages lawyers to provide free legal representation to poor clients, ADF’s allied attorneys steer clear of the indigent and instead focus exclusively on sexuality, reproduction, and social conservatism.
What’s more, by collaborating with other like-minded outfits—among them, Liberty Counsel and the American Center for Law and Justice—ADF provides conservative Christian lawyers with an opportunity to team up on both local and national cases. Periodic trainings—online as well as in-person ones—offer additional chances for skill development and schmoozing. Lastly, thanks to Americans United for Life, model legislation and sample legal briefs give ADF’s other allies an easy way to plug in and introduce ready-made bills to slowly but surely chip away at abortion, contraceptive access, and LGBTQ equality.
The upshot has been dramatic. Despite the recent Supreme Court win in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the number of anti-choice measures passed by statehouses across the country has ramped up since 2011. Restrictions—ranging from parental consent provisions to mandatory ultrasound bills and expanded waiting periods for people seeking abortions—have been imposed. Needless to say, the situation is unlikely to improve appreciably for the foreseeable future. What’s more, the same people who oppose abortion have unleashed a backlash to marriage equality as well as anti-discrimination protections for the trans community, and their howls of disapproval have hit a fever pitch.
The end result, Wilson notes, is that the United States now has “an inconstant localized patchwork of rules” governing abortion; some counties persist in denying marriage licenses to LGBTQ couples, making homophobic public servants martyrs in some quarters. As for reproductive health care, it all depends on where one lives: By virtue of location, some people have relatively easy access to medical providers while others have to travel hundreds of miles and take multiple days off from work to end an unwanted pregnancy. Needless to say, this is highly pleasing to ADF’s attorneys and has served to bolster their fundraising efforts. After all, nothing brings in money faster than demonstrable success.
The New States of Abortion Politics is a sobering reminder of the gains won by the anti-choice movement. And while Wilson does not tip his hand to indicate his reaction to this or other conservative victories—he is merely the reporter—it is hard to read the volume as anything short of a call for renewed activism in support of reproductive rights, both in the courts and in the streets.
Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggests the next president is going to have a couple of U.S. Supreme Court nominations to make, which means the Court could be effectively up for grabs depending on this election’s outcome.
This summer, the Supreme Court ordered the Obama administration and religiously affiliated nonprofits who object to providing contraception to try and find some kind of compromise. While they hammer one out, a University of Notre Dame student has asked a federal appeals court to let her join in the litigation, to fight the university’s stance of trying to deny access to contraception coverage.
Florida officials have not yet appealed a federal district court ruling blocking a law that would have prevented Medicaid funds from going to Planned Parenthood reproductive health care centers. The law would also mandate a state regulator review of patient records from half of the approximately 70,000 abortions in the state each year.
An Ohio appeals court ruled a Cleveland abortion clinic can move forward with its lawsuit challenging requirements that prohibit public hospitals from entering into transfer agreements with clinics, along with another requirement that mandates providers to check for a fetal heartbeat before performing an abortion.