What the Abortion Clinic Buffer Zone Law Was Really About

A counselor at a Boston-area abortion clinic talks about why today's Supreme Court decision hurts women and health care providers.

Megan J. Smith, 26, is an artist and reproductive-rights activist based in Boston. She founded the Repeal Hyde Art Project in 2011 to raise awareness and create dialogue about the Hyde Amendment through collaborative arts and sharable graphic content. The Hyde Amendment prohibits Medicaid payment for abortions, making access to care unaffordable and inaccessible. Smith has also designed artwork for organizations such as Advocates for Youth, Provide, and Ibis Reproductive Health to create awareness about reproductive health and justice topics.

Between 2008 and 2013, Smith worked with abortion funds and clinics in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Abortion funds were created largely in response to the Hyde Amendment, and provide financial and logistical assistance to people unable to afford abortions. Most recently, she works as a counselor at a Boston-area abortion clinic—where she frequently encounters protesters—and is pursuing her master's in Social Work at Simmons College.

I have worked in abortion clinics and with abortion funds in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts for the past six years, so I know what to expect when I'm confronted with an anti-choice protester outside of a clinic where abortions are provided. I know how their words will hit me. I know how to protect myself. I know how to be vigilant about my surroundings and when to exit potentially explosive situations. I have been trained in how to de-escalate conflicts.

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.

As a former abortion fund worker, I have also heard the stories of those struggling to make ends meet who are not able to pull together the money for an abortion. People seeking abortion care today face immeasurable obstacles—closing clinics, waiting periods, stigma, loss of familial support, and inaccessible services. Striking down the buffer zones would force these people, who have often already had to overcome so much, into potentially dangerous confrontations with protesters.

This issue is personal. I'm used to engaging in confrontational conversation, facing people yelling at me, and even feeling threatened. I have been trained. My clients haven't.

To put these people at risk of violence is irresponsible and unforgivable. I can't shake Shannon Lowney, Leeanne Nichols, and Dr. Tiller from my mind. I refuse to forget them. I can't picture my patients being harmed for trying to exercise their constitutional rights. I can't picture my colleagues going to work and never making it home. No one should have to.

Megan J. Smith is an artist and reproductive rights activist.


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