McCullen: A view from a thousand feet

Clinic escortsAbortion clinics are a dangerous place for staffers and patients. As Vicki Saporta told the Huffington Post,”[s]ince 1977, there have been 8 murders, 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 181 arsons, and thousands of incidents of criminal activities.” You wouldn’t know that, though, from yesterday’s Supreme Court decision McCullen v. Coakley. Maya wrote yesterday that the dangerous, disappointing McCullen struck down Massachusetts’ “buffer zone” law. Buffer zones were set up to protect people entering abortion clinics for services or work against violence and harassment — but Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, elides these threats and re-imagines the anti-choice protester as a grinning granny with  some good advice. These protesters, Roberts explains, merely want to provide quiet “counseling.” And their pamphlets and one-on-one conversations are “historically . . . associated with the transmission of ideas,” as though clinic harassment was the next installment of the fucking Federalist Papers.

Saporta points out that “aggressive threats and intimidation, stalking patients from their cars to the door, and verbally and physically assaulting them is not counseling,” and, as Dr. Jane Chi tweeted, “[i]f abortion picketers were ‘plump grandmothers’ making ‘quiet conversation,’ we wouldn’t have needed buffer zones.” Yet the Court, in this decision, prioritized its abstracted vision of abortion — which exists first and foremost not as a medical service but as a topic of debate — over actual abortions.

Of course, there is nothing theoretical about abortion for one in three women and many trans men and gender queer people. Abortion isn’t a symbol. It isn’t an idea. It’s a medical procedure they chose to undergo. And the sidewalk outside the clinic isn’t a metaphor for the American abortion debate or the polarization of public opinion, but an actual sidewalk through which their actual bodies must cross in the face of actual harassment. To treat it as an abstraction is disrespectful to those who know too well the very real impacts of impeded access — and also betrays the Court’s distance from the on-the-ground dangers it now exacerbates. In McCullen we see the Justices looking down on the sidewalks of America’s clinics from a thousand feet. From this great height, every walk through the crowds looks shorter and every death threat sounds softer. It must feel very safe up there.

As Jill Fillipovic writes at Cosmopolitan, it’s unclear what the future of buffer zones will be. But the Court’s inattention to the concrete realities of American’s lived experiences of clinic harassment is a bad omen for cases that will likely come to the Justices in the next few years. TRAP laws — laws that target abortion providers in order to shut down services — may look innocuous on paper but create significant obstacles for patients by shutting down clinics and requiring additional trips. But in order to recognize these harms, the Court has to be willing to climb down from Mount Olympus and see what abortion access looks like on the ground.

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AlexandraAlexandra Brodsky is a Feministing editor, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX.

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  1. Posted June 27, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Very muscular and informative article. Thanks for writing it!

  2. Posted June 27, 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    I understand why buffer zones around women’s clinics are necessary, not least of which is privacy. Strangers have no business knowing who is going to a women’s clinic or why. Misusing that information (as when activists inform women’s families they have visited an “abortion clinic” or harass them at home) is a violation of federal law under HIPAA (The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). Under criminal law, violators can be punished by up to “A fine of up to $250,000 or imprisonment up to 10 years” and civil penalties can reach “$50,000 per violation, with an annual maximum of $1.5 million.” Violators could also become ineligible for federally funded health care.

    That said, what do you think about the fact the Supreme Court Justices ruled unanimously to strike down the “buffer zone” law? It was not along political or gender lines; but unanimously viewed as in violation of the Constitution.

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