Still, I remember vividly the day that Dr. George Tiller was killed in 2009. I read the news, and my body went numb. Although I hadn't had the privilege of meeting him personally, I felt like I knew him from reading his words and seeing his interviews.
That day, I rode the train to work, and my thoughts turned to the callers I spoke with each day who faced immense obstacles to obtain abortion care. I thought of a woman living in poverty who had just found out that she carried a baby with a fetal anomaly. I had referred her to Dr. Tiller a few weeks before to his murder. Where would she go now?
I cried. Then I went into work.
The Supreme Court ruled today that the Massachusetts buffer zone law is not constitutional. Massachusetts's buffer zone law established a zone of protection around abortion clinics in the state to keep patients and staff safe.
The murders of Shannon Lowney and Leeanne Nichols 20 years ago in Brookline, Mass., prompted the first buffer zone legislation, passed in 2000. The law was amended in 2007 and the buffer zone was extended to 35 feet. Dr. Tiller's death reinforced just how essential buffer-zone legislation remains.
Despite the law, clinic violence and threats to patient and provider safety have not stopped. The National Abortion Federation reports that in 2013, 92 percent of providers were concerned about the safety of their patients and employees, and that 90 percent of providers had a patient entering their facility express concerns about her personal safety.
This is no small matter. People need safe access to abortions, especially women of color and immigrant women, who are disproportionately impacted by restrictive legislation. In 2011, the most recent Guttmacher Institute data available, a little more than 1 million women had abortions in the U.S. Roughly 36 percent of these women identified as white, 30 percent as black, and 25 percent as Latina.
Buffer-zone legislation is necessary to ensure the safety of the many people seeking abortion care and other health care services provided in the same facilities. Marty Walz, CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, wrote to me in an email. "I experienced the aggressive intimidation that occurred before our 2007 law was passed—that's how I know the critical role the buffer zone plays in ensuring the safety of our patients and staff. As the justices debate the merits of this case, they do so from inside a building protected by restrictions on protest activity. Massachusetts women deserve the same protection. Regardless of what the justices decide, Planned Parenthood will be here for our patients and staff, and will work tirelessly to protect their safety."
I am grateful that Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics are there for the people who will have abortions this year, and I know that they will continue to operate despite the outcome of this case. But I can't shake the unsettled feeling in my stomach. I live minutes from where Shannon Lowney and Leanne Nichols were killed. I counsel patients at a Boston-area clinic and interact with protesters weekly. I am not exempt from clinic violence.