Abortion: Drawing a line on free speech

Eleanor McCullen is challenging a Massachusetts law that limits free speech within a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics.

The right to “peaceful disagreement” is a cherished civil liberty—except, apparently, in the case of abortion, said Jay Sekulow in USAToday.com. Since 2007, a Massachusetts law has granted the abortion industry the “privilege” of being protected from free speech by forbidding pro-life advocates from entering a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics. Violations are punishable by up to two and a half years in prison. The law was designed to protect patients from being harassed—something that is already an arrestable offense, said Charles Cooke in NationalReview.com. In reality, all it does is prevent well-meaning activists like Eleanor McCullen, a “soft-spoken, 77-year-old grandmother,” from exercising her First Amendment right to try to talk women out of abortions on a public sidewalk. McCullen is challenging the law in the Supreme Court, which last week heard her plea to be able to “walk and talk gently, lovingly, anywhere with anybody.”

McCullen may be polite and “grandmotherly,” said Abby Ohlheiser in TheWire.com, but in Massachusetts’s history of abortion protests, she’s the exception to the rule. Before 2007, women were routinely spat on, screamed at, and told they were going to hell as they approached clinics. Protesters wielding fake baby dolls would yell, “It’s alive! You see what you’re doing!” while others played tape recordings of a child crying, “Mommy, Mommy!” Those protests culminated in a deadly shooting spree in 1994 that claimed the lives of two clinic employees. Today, protesters can still “say what they want,” said Amanda Marcotte in Slate.com. McCullen has herself acknowledged that she’s persuaded more than 80 women to continue their pregnancies while standing outside the zone. The buffer simply upholds another cherished right: to go about one’s business without having people scream in your face.

It’s understandable that pro-choicers want to shield women from unpleasant messages at a difficult moment in their lives, said Kirsten Powers in TheDailyBeast.com. But if free speech can be limited because it’s upsetting, then “unions and environmentalists could be next.” Businesses could create zones outside their offices, banning union members or environmental activists who might discourage their customers. Under our Constitution, the government does not have the right to control the content of speech, no matter how unpleasant it is. “Abandon that principle, and your free speech may be next.”

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