Buffer Zones, Bubble Zones, and Clinic Access

This law topic summary was last updated on: March 21, 2016

Since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, abortion providers, their families, clinic employees, and clinics have been the target of harassment and violence. According to the National Abortion Federation (NAF) since 1977, eight clinic workers—including four doctors, two clinic employees, a clinic escort, and a security guard—have been murdered in the United States. There have been 17 attempted murders since 1991, more than 6,400 reported acts of violence against abortion providers since 1977, including 42 bombings, 181 arson cases, 399 invasions, 100 acid attacks, 663 bioterrorism threats, death threats, kidnappings, and assaults, and more than 175,000 reported acts of disruption, including bomb threats and harassing calls targeting abortion providers and their facilities. A September 2013 survey of U.S. NAF members found that nearly 90 percent of providers had a patient entering their facility express concerns about their personal safety. This is why the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, bubble and buffer zones, and other supplemental laws are necessary to protect abortion providers, clinic employees, and their patients.

In 1994 Congress enacted the FACE Act—Title 18,U.S.C., Section 248—in response to violence against individuals providing and obtaining reproductive health services. FACE prohibits the use of “force, threat of force, or physical obstruction” in order to prevent individuals from obtaining or providing reproductive health services or from engaging in conduct that “intentionally damages or destroys” the property of reproductive health facilities and provides civil and criminal penalties for violators.

According to the Department of Justice National Task Force on Violence Against Health Care Providers since FACE was enacted, large-scale blockades against abortion clinics have declined, but violence and threats continue.

In order to supplement FACE, states have enacted laws that prevent certain activities or create “bubble” or “buffer” zones, which are specific areas around the individuals or clinic entrances, respectively. These zones aim to preserve the rights of individuals to safe and unimpeded access to medical services while simultaneously safeguarding the free speech rights of protesters to communicate to their intended audiences.

In 2014, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court held that a Massachusetts law that provides for a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics is unconstitutional. The Court did not outlaw buffer zones, but determined that the Massachusetts law was not narrowly tailored enough to meet the requirements of the First Amendment. The Court stated that the law burdens more speech than necessary and clinics should address issues with protesters through other means first, such as traffic ordinances or other legal tools. The case—McCullen v. Coakley—did not specifically overturn Hill v. Colorado, but the effect of this ruling on other bubble and buffer zones, is unclear.

Examples of Buffer and Bubble Zone Laws (last updated March 21, 2016)

According to the Guttmacher Institute, as of June 1, 2014, 15 states and the District of Columbia prohibit certain actions against abortion providers including blocking the entrance to clinic facilities, threatening staff or patients, property damage, telephone harassment, excessive noise, possessing a weapon on clinic grounds, trespassing, bubble zones protecting a distance around individuals, and buffer zones prohibiting access around the clinic at a specific distance.

 

Laws

Title Number State Proposed Status
Pennsylvania Buffer Zone Law (HB 1891) HB 1891 Pennsylvania Dec 12, 2013 Failed to Pass
Pennsylvania Buffer Zone Law (SB 1208) SB 1208 Pennsylvania Jan 16, 2014 Failed to Pass
New Hampshire Buffer Zone Bill (SB 319) SB 319 New Hampshire Jan 8, 2014 Signed into Law
New Hampshire Bill Repealing the Buffer Zone Law (HB 403) HB 403 New Hampshire Jan 8, 2015 Proposed
New York Bill Regarding Photography Harassment at Abortion Clinics (A 3454) A 3454 New York Jan 22, 2015 Proposed
New York Reproductive Health Care Facilities Access Act (A 182) A 182 New York Jan 7, 2015 Proposed