March 19, 1996 in Nation/World

Supreme Court Will Review Limits On Abortion Protests

Washington Post

Stepping back into the abortion fray, the Supreme Court announced Monday it would clarify how far judges can go in keeping raucous protesters away from health clinics that perform abortions.

Since the court reaffirmed a basic right to abortion in 1992, the justices have faced a second round of abortion-related cases, balancing the rights of women seeking medical care with the free speech interests of abortion protesters who take to the streets.

The case accepted Monday arose from protests in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y. It concerns a court order that created a 15-foot buffer zone around abortion clinic entrances, as well as around vehicles entering clinic driveways and patients entering or leaving the clinics. The order also permitted only two protestors to come within 15 feet of a patient. Anti-abortion groups often call them “sidewalk counselors.” If a patient says she wants to be left alone, even the two protestors allowed to approach her must retreat to at least 15 feet away.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the order, saying the buffer zones were narrowly tailored to protect the clinics and patients.

The Second Circuit stressed the importance of keeping protesters at a distance. Referring to the clamor and intimidation caused by abortion foes, the lower court said, “These activities, on some occasions, have so intimidated and confused patients approaching the clinics that they have left the areas, causing them to suffer a delay in obtaining medical care.”

But two abortion opponents affiliated with Project Rescue, the Rev. Paul Schenck and Dwight Saunders, asserted in their petition to the Supreme Court that the appeals court attacked the core of the First Amendment: “the protection of unpopular and despised speech in the traditional public forum of public sidewalks and streets.”

The Pro-Choice Network of Western New York, which was among a group of physicians and abortion rights advocates that challenged Project Rescue’s activities in court, countered in a brief by lawyer Lucinda M. Finley that given “the record of obstruction, intimidation, health risks, and contempts” before the appeals court, “its decision is undoubtedly meritorious.”

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