KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

Supreme Court Appears Split On Abortion Protester ‘Buffer-Zone’

Several justices expressed skepticism about the constitutionality of a Massachusetts law that prohibits protesters within a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinic entrances. Chief Justice John Roberts is likely to cast the deciding vote.

The Boston Globe: Justices Question Mass. Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones
In a case watched closely across the country, justices of the U.S. Supreme Court expressed skepticism Wednesday about a Massachusetts law that creates buffer zones outside abortion clinics to restrict demonstrations, questioning whether it goes too far and infringes on the free speech of activists who approach women seeking abortions. The 2007 state law aims to keep protesters at least 35 feet from the entrances of abortion clinics to quell aggressive demonstrations that have congested sidewalks and prevented people from entering the clinics. But some justices raised questions about the size of the zone and asked whether the state could find another way to address safety concerns and prevent abortion opponents from impeding access to clinics without limiting their free speech (Valencia, 1/15).

The New York Times: Justices Seem Split On Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones, But Crucial Voice Is Silent
The Supreme Court appeared evenly divided on Wednesday as it heard arguments in a First Amendment challenge to a Massachusetts law that created buffer zones around abortion clinics in the state. But a significant piece of data was missing: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who almost certainly holds the crucial vote, asked no questions. His earlier opinions suggest, however, that he is likely to provide the fifth vote to strike down the law (Liptak, 1/15).

Politico: Justices Skeptical About Mass. Abortion Clinic 'Buffer Zone'
Opponents of the law, including a woman who regularly tries to conduct “sidewalk counseling” outside a Boston clinic and who brought this case, say the exemption for employees creates an unconstitutional imbalance in speech. The woman, Eleanor McCullen, said her anti-abortion speech is limited while the speech of those who support the clinic is not (Haberkorn and Gerstein, 1/15).

The Washington Post: Supreme Court Justices Question Size Of Buffer Zones Around Mass. Abortion Clinics
Several justices made clear in their questioning that they think the law’s restrictions on who can come within a 35-foot space around a facility’s entrance unfairly target those who want to hand out leaflets or speak to the women planning abortions. But predicting outcomes is difficult because the justice who probably is key to the court’s ultimate decision kept his own counsel. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., normally an active participant in the court’s major cases, did not pose a single question to the three lawyers who argued the case. ... If the Massachusetts limit is in trouble, a bigger question would be whether the court is ready to reverse an earlier ruling that upheld an eight-foot no-contact zone in a 2000 abortion protest case from Colorado. The decision brought forceful dissents from Scalia, Kennedy and Justice Clarence Thomas, and complaints since from First Amendment activists (Barnes, 1/15).

Reuters: U.S. Supreme Court Skeptical On Abortion Clinic Buffer-Zone Law
U.S. Supreme Court justices expressed doubt on Wednesday about a Massachusetts law that mandates a protective buffer zone around abortion clinics to allow patients unimpeded access, indicating they may strike it down as unconstitutional as demanded by anti-abortion protesters. Challenging the 2007 law, anti-abortion activists say it violated their freedom of speech rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by preventing them from standing on the sidewalk and speaking to people entering the clinics (Hurley, 1/15).

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