The Supreme Court will rule this year on a case involving “buffer zones” outside abortion clinics, but it has declined to hear a case on state abortion bans after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
On Jan. 15, the court heard oral arguments in McCullen v. Coakley, a case challenging a Massachusetts state law requiring a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics, in which protestors and pro-life counselors may not enter to speak with patients.
Supporters of the law say it is a matter of safety and unobstructed access to clinics, while opponents argue that it infringes upon freedom of speech and unfairly targets those who hold pro-life viewpoints.
The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in the case in June.
The state's brief on the case argues that the law is “justified solely by legitimate government interests in public safety and health care access.”
However, pro-life challengers to the law say that it infringes upon their constitutionally-protected First Amendment right to the freedom of speech. They have argued in a legal brief that the law “indiscriminately criminalizes even peaceful, consensual, non-obstructive conversation and leafleting” and that it unfairly targets certain kinds of speech, namely, pro-life counseling and views.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the buffer law in January 2013, ruling that the First Amendment does not guarantee an audience “available at close range,” and arguing that pro-life counselors still have access to women seeking abortions, even with the 35-foot buffer zone in place.
Pro-life organizers from around the country have questioned the ruling.
“Though the Massachusetts law in question certainly has to do with abortion, and the risk to thousands of innocent human lives is severe, this is a First Amendment issue first and foremost,” said Lila Rose, president of the pro-life investigative organization Live Action, in a Jan. 14 statement.
“The Constitution of the United States does not become void as one gets close to an abortion facility. The Court has a crucial opportunity today to defend our nation's foundational commitment to freedom of speech.”
Dana Cody, president and executive director of Life Legal Defense Foundation, called for the “Supreme Court to put an end to these perverse attempts to silence pro-life speakers.”
“Massachusetts is grasping at straws and its 'bubble zone' law flies in the face of the very notion of Freedom of Speech,” she said.
The oral arguments in the Massachusetts case were heard two days after the Supreme Court announced that it would not be hearing an appeal from the state of Arizona which seeks to re-instate its law barring most late-term abortions.
Enacted in April 2012, the Arizona law prohibited most abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, measured by the date of the woman's last menstrual period. About a dozen other states have similar restrictions, although they generally measure from fertilization – about two weeks later than the Arizona law. Several other states ban abortion at 24 weeks, the point of fetal viability.
Advocates of the Arizona law point to evidence that unborn babies can feel pain at 20 weeks of development and argue that late-term abortions pose a greater risk to the mother.
In May 2013, a panel of judges from the Ninth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals ruled the law unconstitutional, saying that Arizona's limits on late-term abortion violated previous Supreme Court rulings that expanded access to abortion, including the landmark 1973 “Roe v. Wade” case.
Appeals court judges also dismissed arguments based on the unborn baby's ability to feel pain, saying that the state of Arizona can instead handle this problem by “requiring anesthetization of the fetuses about to be killed.”
The Supreme Court declined to hear the case, offering no comments on its decision. This allows the ruling from the appeals court to stand, overturning the regulation. Other state laws will not be affected.