by Sally Castillo and Susannah Savage
On Monday, February 3, the Crimson published “Rebuffing the Buffer Zone,” a staff-endorsed editorial arguing that the Supreme Court should “uphold free speech” in the case of McCullen v. Coakley. At stake in the case is a Massachusetts law that establishes a 35-foot buffer zone in front of abortion clinics, beyond which anti-abortion protestors cannot pass. “Free speech,” for the Crimson entails repealing the right of abortion clinics to put a buffer zone in place. Such a buffer, according to the Crimson is “overbearing in its scope” and “unduly violates” protesters’ rights to “non-violently express their views.”
The six-paragraph editorial grossly oversimplifies a complex, nuanced situation. It demonstrates a shocking lack of research into McCullen v. Coakley and the issues the case encompasses. Most importantly, it ignores the truly disturbing reality of anti-abortion protest practices and fails to address the subtleties inherent in the idea of “free speech” itself. Such oversimplification and lack of research is, we believe, an embarrassment for an organization that strives for journalistic accuracy.
To the Crimson’s credit, the editorial demonstrates an adept understanding of American colonial history. In builds its argument upon rhetoric from our nation’s Founding Fathers, quoting Benjamin Franklin who “once said that no amount of liberty should ever be sacrificed in order to ‘purchase a little temporary safety.’” The editorial then goes on to negate the idea of “temporary safety” in the case of women seeking an abortion, stating that a “peaceful, 77-year-old woman” like protestor Eleanor McCullen could not possibly harm any woman entering a clinic. Their words echo those of Justice Antonin Scalia: abortion protesters, he argued in early January, are not real protesters, but “counselors” who “comfort” women.
A quick search through the Harvard Library Database – indeed, a ten-second glance through a Google results list – shows how woefully inaccurate the Crimson’s statement is. Abortion protestors are no “counselors;” they are, in fact, rarely “peaceful.” In a 2013 study analyzing the effect of abortion protestors on clinic patients’ wellbeing, demographer Diane Foster and her team found that an alarming number of clinics report encountering “aggressive” protestors on a daily basis. A national survey of abortion clinics found that more than a third of abortion protesters were “aggressive” toward patients–screaming, yelling, and threatening women and their partners as they walk past–and nearly half (44%) were a “mix” between “aggressive” and more peaceful. Eighty three percent of the facilities surveyed reported that their staff “regularly comforts patients” that are disturbed and distressed by unnecessary harassment. Women seeking abortions do not pass benign counselors; as Dean Obeidallah reports, women and their partners pass screaming groups of pro-life supporters that are anything but kind, and are often armed with anti-abortion fantasies presented as “facts.” For example, a common protester sign reads that “abortions cause breast cancer,” a completely false statement. A December 2013 article in the L.A. Times affirmed that reproductive health centers are frequently turned into “battlegrounds” of harassment and assault.
According to the Crimson’s editorial, all of these “aggressive” protestors, under the First Amendment, should be allowed to scream and harass women and their partners as much as they like. However, this argument shows a misunderstanding of the definition of free speech as sanctioned by the Constitution. Franklin may have argued that liberty trumps safety, but American law still dictates that a person’s right to free speech stops when it endangers others. Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theatre–thus causing a stampede–harms others, and, as such, is illegal, regardless of the Bill of Rights. Similarly, the methods of protest exhibited outside of abortion clinics endanger the mental and physical safety of patients. In the past three years alone there have been nearly a dozen instances of arson, shootings and assassination attempts at American reproductive health centers. Furthermore, the Anti-Defamation League has noted that “anti-abortion violence has…remained a consistent…source of domestic terrorism and violence.”
Even Colorado, the model for the Crimson’s ultimate suggestion of minimizing the buffer zone to eight feet from a clinic’s entrance, has put restriction on protesting methods when it comes to abortion. A 2013 Colorado law banned any protests that include “graphic images” that could be seen by children – a restriction specifically applicable to abortion protesters’ tendency to hold signs of late-second and third-trimester aborted fetuses. Last year, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case challenging the law. There are many methods of political expression that are not protected under free speech, and many of the practices employed by anti-abortion protestors fall into this category.
“Rebuffing the Buffer Zone” is an unfortunately under-researched and oversimplified editorial that woefully ignores the complexities of free speech and of abortion politics. The issue of class, for example, lies at the crux of the abortion debate. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 69% of women obtaining abortions subsist on incomes at or below the federal poverty line. First trimester abortions are some of the safest medical procedures in existence–with a less than 0.05% complication rate, they are safer than, say, a tonsillectomy; the cost of abortions, however, are often not covered by medical insurance. At an average cost of $470, a first trimester abortion is an enormous financial burden, one that women feel they must accrue: over three-fourths of women seeking abortions do so because they feel they cannot afford raising a child.
We wholeheartedly support the Crimson’s right to publish an editorial on the controversial issue of abortion; indeed, its ability to establish an opinion on the topic demonstrates a commendable and legal exercise of free speech. We do, however, request that the next time the Crimson Staff chooses to endorse an article on such a nuanced topic, they fully investigate the issue before they start to write about it.