Abortion: Drawing the Line
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TOM BEARDEN: The case revolves around an abortion clinic in Buffalo, New York, which has been the target of anti-abortion rights demonstrators for more than 10 years. Clinic director Marilynn Buckham says the situation became intolerable.
MARILYNN BUCKHAM, Clinic Director: I think it needs to be explained that at our old location as well as here if a car would come down the street and they would surround the car so the car could not go forward, or if we have a patient, as today, coming from the subway station, they’re walking down the street, they cannot even get to the clinic because they’re surrounded by anti-abortion people.
TOM BEARDEN: It got so bad that the clinic called Buffalo Gyn Women Services, went to federal court to get an injunction to stop protesters from blocking their doorways and harassing women seeking abortions.
The district court granted the injunction and established a 15-foot buffer zone around the entrances to the building which today is marked by yellow lines. An even larger buffer zone at another clinic has been upheld on appeal. But the court didn’t stop there. It also established a 15-foot moving buffer zone around people entering and leaving the clinic.
Only two protesters are allowed to enter that zone and can offer counseling only of a non-threatening nature. It is this provision which the anti-abortion rights forces have appealed to the high court. Rev. Paul Schenck has participated in many of the anti-abortion demonstrations.
He says the other side has harassed him too. He and his twin brother, Robert, also a minister, say the injunction went too far, that the court imposed what they believe are impossible limitations on anti-abortion rights demonstrators.
REV. PAUL SCHENCK: If a person indicates verbally or non-verbally, including a flick of a wrist or an upturned eye, that they do not wish to receive the counsel, then the counselor must cease and desist and back off 15 feet. In addition to that, within that 15-foot zone, there is to be absolutely not expressive activity, no demonstration whatsoever which includes prayer, hymn singing, even the wearing of clerical vestments could be interpreted as being a demonstration.
MARILYNN BUCKHAM: That’s some of the lies that they continue to speak about, flicking a hand or raising an eyebrow. We’re talking about the shoving literature in people’s face, screaming at them right up in their face, and when we have asked them to back off, they still don’t back off.
TOM BEARDEN: Rev. Paul Schenck appealed the case to the Supreme Court, claiming that the limitations were an infringement on his First Amendment rights to free speech.
REV. PAUL SCHENCK: What we’re saying to the court is you can’t punish speech because someone does not want to hear it. That’s the reason we have a First Amendment. Well, I’m not a lawyer by training but when these–when this order came out, immediately we sensed this doesn’t feel like the First Amendment to us, to tell a person on a public street I represent one point of view, I don’t want to hear your point of view, stop talking now, or go to prison. And that’s exactly what’s happened in this case.
REV. ROBERT SCHENCK: And it is not a person. It is a pro-life person. In other words, the opposite side, the pro-abortion side, has all the liberty they want to speak whenever, wherever, however they please.
TOM BEARDEN: But Director Buckham says what is at stake is a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, and that the methods use to prevent them from doing so do not qualify as free speech.
MARILYNN BUCKHAM: Free speech is not intimidation, uh, sometimes even assault, grabbing people, in their face. That is not in any manner or sense free speech. If that was all they were doing was just counseling women as they often say, it would never be an issue, it is not counseling. It’s intimidation. It’s definitely harassment and trespassing on our property as it has been in the past.