Looking at the McCullen v. Coakley Decision

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30 Jul 2014

This post was written by Isabel Mullin, the 2014 Linda Smith Dyer Fellow at the Maine Women’s Policy Center


This June, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that instituted zones outside reproductive health care facilities to provide a buffer for patients from harassment, intimidation, and the threat of violence from protesters.  This decision goes against previous decisions by the Court in which similar buffer zones were upheld as necessary to protect those seeking medical care.


What the Decision Means for Women in Massachusetts:

Massachusetts has had a history of intense protest, patient intimidation, violence, and even two tragic murders outside the reproductive health care facilities that these buffer zones were to protect.  The Massachusetts Legislature had first enacted smaller zones which provided more flexibility for protesters, but after only a few years it was clear these zones were not serving their intended purpose and patients were still facing the same issues trying to access reproductive healthcare services.  The 35-foot zone was enacted to address the problems that still existed.

In striking down this law, the Court ignored the extensive record documenting the behavior of protesters and held the zone was not drawn narrowly enough to protect the protesters’ First Amendment right to free speech.  The unanimous majority ignored women’s right to reproductive healthcare and abortion and left them without protection from those who seek to prevent them from accessing such services.


What the Decision Means for the Nation:

The Court’s holding—that the buffer zone was not drawn narrowly enough—means that across the country similar laws and ordinances will likely be struck down or repealed.  Here in Maine, we already saw the Portland City Council repeal the buffer zone outside the Planned Parenthood clinic even while a federal court case was pending on its constitutionality.  Those, unlike the Court, who understand the impact this ruling has on women in Massachusetts, Maine, and elsewhere are scrambling to find solutions to ensure all women can access reproductive healthcare services.

Massachusetts acted quickly by passing new legislation, which, as of this writing, is waiting for the governor’s anticipated signature to become law.  The bill provides law enforcement greater ability to disperse problematic protesters, but does not have the same preventative power that the buffer zone did.


Limiting women’s right to reproductive healthcare:

The Robert’s Court is one of the most ideologically conservative courts in living memory and it is chipping away at women’s right to access reproductive healthcare.  In 2007, in Gonzales v. Carhart the court upheld a federal ban on a certain type of abortion despite the fact that the law made no exceptions for cases where the women’s health is at stake.  This year, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby the court said because the religious owners of some corporations believed certain contraceptives were “abortifacients” they did not have to provide coverage of them for their employees and limited women’s access to contraceptive care.  Further, in McCullen the Court struck down the buffer zones making access to abortions at reproductive healthcare facilities more challenging for women who are already facing a potentially stressful and emotional decision to choose abortion.

The ultimate concern is that the Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, but for now that remains a thing of nightmares, not reality.



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