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Supreme Court strikes down abortion clinic buffer zone

The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a 35-foot protest-free zone outside abortion clinics in Massachusetts.

The nine justices unanimously ruled that extending a buffer zone that far from clinic entrances violates the First Amendment rights of protesters.

Local anti-abortion groups are celebrating the decision and researching what it might mean for protests outside of the three remaining clinics in southwest Ohio.

“We are definitely going to look at that, because the first thing we thought of was Stroop Road,” said Margie Christie, the community advocacy coordinator with Dayton Right to Life, referring to the Women’s Med Center. The Kettering facility is the only clinic in the Dayton region that provides abortion services.

There are 11 abortion clinics in Ohio. More than 25,470 abortions were performed in Ohio in 2012, about 700 more than in 2011. It was the first increase in the state when about 37,460 abortions were reported in 2001, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

Christie added, “We have as much right to free speech as anyone else, and though they do want to keep us away, gals should have the opportunity to hear both sides.”

But some abortion-rights groups said the ruling is not expected to have much local impact because buffer zones are not commonplace.

The only Planned Parenthood facility in southwest Ohio that provides abortions is located in Cincinnati, and though it has a fence surrounding the property, it has no buffer zones, representatives said.

Still, the legal decision is still disappointing because the safety and privacy of clinic patients and staff members need and deserve protection, said Rick Pender, vice president of development and external affairs for Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region.

“In our opinion, women should be able to make carefully considered, private medical decisions without having strangers and others judge them or physically threat them,” Pender said.

‘Cannot silence peaceful speakers’

The buffer zone case began when Boston-area grandmother Eleanor McCullen and other abortion opponents sued over the limits on their activities at Planned Parenthood health centers in three Massachusetts cities: Boston, Springfield and Worcester.

At the latter two sites, the protesters say they have little chance of reaching patients arriving by car, because they must stay 35 feet not from the clinic entrances, but from the driveway to those buildings’ parking lots. Patients enter the building through the parking lots, which are private property.

Mark Rienzi, who represented the protesters at the Supreme Court, said, “The government cannot reserve its public sidewalks for Planned Parenthood, as if their message is the only one women should be allowed to hear. Today’s decision confirms that the First Amendment is for everyone, and that the government cannot silence peaceful speakers.”

Chief Justice John Roberts said authorities have less intrusive ways to deal with problems outside clinics and noted that most of the problems reported by police and the clinics occurred outside one Planned Parenthood facility in Boston, and only on Saturdays when the largest crowds typically gather.

“For a problem shown to arise only once a week in one city at one clinic, creating 35-foot buffer zones at every clinic across the Commonwealth is hardly a narrowly tailored solution,” Roberts said.

‘Both sides of the story’

While the court was unanimous in the overall outcome, Roberts joined with the four liberal justices to strike down the buffer zone on narrower grounds than the other more conservative justices wanted.

In a separate opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia criticized Roberts’ opinion for carrying forward “this court’s practice of giving abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents.”

Scalia said state and local governments around the country would continue to be able to “restrict antiabortion speech without fear of rigorous constitutional review.”

Still, abortion-rights advocates lamented the decision and said it compromised the safety of women seeking abortions.

Planned Parenthood said that the buffer zone has significantly reduced the harassment of patients and clinic employees. Before the 35-foot zone went into effect in 2007, protesters could stand next to the entrances and force patients to squeeze by, the organization said.

Planned Parenthood provides health exams for women, cancer screenings, tests for sexually transmitted diseases, birth control and abortions at its clinics.

Pender, the spokesman for this region, said the decision will not have any direct impact on its operations in southwest Ohio. But, he said, it is never good when accessing health care becomes more complicated.

The Supreme Court’s decision hopefully will provide protesters with better access to women who visit abortion clinics, said Christie, with Dayton Right to Life.

Women have freedom of choice, but they should make informed decisions, which requires knowing and understanding the alternatives to terminating a pregnancy, Christie said.

“Let’s be clear that they get both sides of the story,” she said.

She said women visiting the Women’s Med Center can receive a free ultrasound at the nearby Miami Valley Women’s Center.

She said many women who seek an abortion never view the ultrasound image.

Before 2007, a floating buffer zone kept protesters from approaching unwilling listeners any closer than 6 feet if they were within 18 feet of the clinic. The floating zone was modeled after a Colorado law that the Supreme Court has upheld. That decision was not called into question in Thursday’s ruling.

Clinic officials said they are most concerned about safety because of past incidents of violence. In 1994, a gunman killed two receptionists and wounded five employees and volunteers at a Planned Parenthood facility and another abortion clinic in nearby Brookline, Mass. The most recent killing was in 2009, when Dr. George Tiller, who performed abortions, was shot in a church in Wichita, Kansas.

Abortion protesters said that other state and federal laws already protect health center workers and patients, as well as access to clinics.

The justices will meet one last time on Monday to hand down decisions in cases involving President Barack Obama health law requirement that employers cover women’s contraception in their employee health plans and the ability of unions representing government employees to collect fees from workers who don’t wish to join the union.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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