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Feminist Majority Foundation Supports Clinic Buffer Zones and the Safety of Patients, Doctors and Healthcare Workers
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today on whether local governments can create safety buffer zones around reproductive health clinics to ensure that patients, doctors, and healthcare workers can enter these facilities without harassment, intimidation, or violence.
The Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) joined other women’s and civil rights organizations to file an amicus brief in support of the Massachusetts clinic safety buffer zone law at issue in McCullen v. Coakley.
“Patients, doctors, and healthcare workers are under siege at clinics across the nation,” said FMF President Eleanor Smeal. “Simply put, safety buffer zones help prevent violence and allow women to safely access critical reproductive health services. These laws are part of a tradition of protecting the exercise of fundamental rights from violence, harassment, and intimidation.”
For over 20 years, FMF has tracked incidents of violence, harassment, and intimidation at women’s health clinics in the U.S. FMF brought the first lawsuit in the nation on buffer zones to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994. That case, Madsen v. Women’s Health Center, established the constitutionality of an injunction creating a clinic safety buffer zone in Florida.
“We know that buffer zones aid law enforcement and reduce violence,” said Smeal. “Surveys show that buffer zones decrease criminal activity and increase safe access to clinics.”
The Massachusetts state legislature enacted a clinic safety buffer zone law in 2000 after repeated incidents of clinic violence and intimidation, including the murders in 1994 of two clinic receptionists, Shannon Lowney, 25, and Lee Ann Nichols, 38, by anti-abortion extremist John Salvi at two separate clinics in Brookline. Five other people were wounded in the attacks.
In 2007, the Massachusetts state legislature strengthened its law, creating a 35-foot safety buffer zone after anti-abortion demonstrators continued to crowd clinic entrances, block cars from entering driveways, and intimidate patients, doctors, and healthcare workers. Local law enforcement made clear that having a better-defined buffer zone would promote public safety.
The current Massachusetts law has survived multiple challenges in the lower federal courts, which have all found that the law is a content-neutral, narrowly tailored time-place-manner regulation that protects the public without infringing on the First Amendment rights of others.
“The law doesn’t offend the First Amendment, but it does protect against violence,” said Smeal. “Dr. David Gunn was shot and killed entering his clinic in Pensacola, Florida. Before his murder, Dr. George Tiller was shot and wounded as he was leaving his clinic in Kansas. Dr. John Bayard Britton and a volunteer clinic escort Lt. Col. James Barrett were murdered in Pensacola in the driveway of their clinic. Dr. C. Jackson was stabbed 15 times outside his clinic in New Orleans. Bombs have exploded at clinics in Atlanta and Birmingham. We don’t know if clinic safety buffer zones would have prevented these atrocities, but they do provide a line of defense to those who desperately need it.”
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