A few years ago, my grandmother told me a story. I’d always known that my mother had two separate miscarriages after I was born, but I’d never been given any of the details. It turns out that the after the second miscarriage occurred, my mom needed to go to a clinic to have the pregnancy removed through a procedure that’s known as a “D&E” – dilation and evacuation. A D&E is normally a procedure that’s performed during the second trimester of a pregnancy – it involves dilation of the cervix and removal of the contents of the uterus.
My grandma told me about how she accompanied my mother to the clinic, where they were greeted not by a welcoming and calming medical staff, but by a group or protesters who were assembled at the entrance. These people screamed and yelled at my mother – a woman who had just lost a very much wanted pregnancy, one that she’d dreamed would one day become my new little brother or sister. I can only imagine the anger and grief that she must have felt as those protesters yelled at to her, begging her not to ‘kill her baby.’
That was thirty years ago. Unfortunately, the situation outside abortion clinics across the country has only gotten worse. When walking past the assembled protesters, a patient and her family are often harassed, intimidated, and made to feel ashamed – and that’s often the “best case” scenario. Violence against patients and their doctors is a very real, very disturbing truth in America.
On July 9, 2012, a Wisconsin man named Francis Grady was found guilty on federal arson charges for attempting to burn down a Planned Parenthood. During the trial, Grady said that he set the fire in an attempt to “release the souls of the children.” And that’s not some fringe isolated incident. In 2012 alone, a total of five US clinics were targeted by arsonists.
Right now, the US Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of a Massachusetts law that was created specifically to protect patients and clinic staff from these anti-choice protesters. The law provides for a 35-foot “buffer zone” around abortion clinics in the Massachusetts where the protesters can’t go, creating a safe space where patients can enter the building, denoted by a simple yellow line painted on the ground. Lots of other states and cities around the country have enacted similar laws – in my hometown of San Francisco, we passed our own buffer zone ordinance just last year.
So why has this law made its way all the way up to our highest court? Well, the anti-choice protesters are claiming that the yellow line keeping them 35 feet away from the clinic door – the space of about two parking spots – is violating their right to free speech.
Now, let’s be clear: I love the first amendment. I’ve given money to the ACLU. But there is a long-established precedent of creating these types of buffer zones when public safety is at risk. In fact, the Supreme Court itself bans any kind of demonstrations or protests on its own plaza, creating a buffer zone that spans much further than 35 feet.
And what about patients’ rights to safely access reproductive healthcare?
I’ve heard some people say that police should just arrest “the bad ones.” But that’s a challenging task – often by the time police arrive, the harassment has stopped. And many patients, who may already feel overwhelmed and ashamed, don’t choose to press charges. Besides that, arresting individual protesters is essentially just putting a band-aid on what has become an endemic problem of violence at clinics.
Between 1977 and 2011, clinics in the US experienced at least 41 bombings, 175 arsons, and 656 bomb threats. Just since 1991, there has been an estimated $100 million in vandalism damages at clinics.
Even with a buffer zone, protesters manage to harass and intimidate women who visit abortion clinics. Don’t patients deserve the safety of that 35 feet? Don’t they deserve better?
The Court is expected to make a decision on the fate of buffer zones sometime this spring. It scares me – truly, legitimately scares me – to think of what will happen if the law is struck down. Every day I read about a new bill that has been introduced to make it harder for women to exercise their right to choose. Clinics are closing their doors due to unwieldy regulations, while states with anti-choice legislatures keep pushing more and more extreme bans on a woman’s right to choose.
Even if you’re unsure about your personal feelings regarding abortion, hopefully we can all agree that the violence and intimidation that patients face at clinics is just plain wrong.
And for my mother, for myself, and for the daughter that I may one day have, I’m going to keep fighting. Because I truly believe that this country doesn’t have to be such a dangerous place for women. We can – and we should – do better.
Sarah La Due is the Assistant Director of Public Affairs at NARAL Pro-Choice America. Feel free to follow her on Twitter at @LaDue.