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First Amendment case brings abortion protesters’ rights before Supreme Court

Security escort, left, and protesters stand behind the 35-foot buffer zone outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston on December 7. Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Supreme Court takes up abortion politics Wednesday in a case that looks at whether Massachusetts can ban anti-abortion protesters from stepping within 35 feet of clinics.

The case, McCullen v. Coakley, tells the story of Eleanor McCullen, a woman who visits a Planned Parenthood clinic twice a week to hand out leaflets to try to persuade women not to have abortions. She believes the 35-foot law violates her First Amendment rights, because it often prevents her from interacting with women entering the clinic.

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Martha Coakley, the Massachusetts attorney general, defends the 2007 law. “This law is access balanced with speech balanced with public safety,” she told the New York Times, citing a history of violence and harassment at clinics in Boston. “The law has worked extremely well.”

The legal foundation for this case rests on a court decision from 2000, in Hill v. Colorado, which prohibited anti-abortion advocates in Colorado from stepping within 8 feet of someone entering an abortion clinic.

While some, such as lawyer Floyd Abrams writing in the Wall Street Journal, argue that the Massachusetts law overreaches in its limits, others, such as Mother Jones magazine, point out the need for such limits at abortion clinics.

While the justices weigh the arguments from both pro-life and pro-choice groups, this case doesn’t grapple with abortion policy directly. Instead, it tests the First Amendment, and whether McCullen’s rights have been limited constitutionally.

Still, the case gives the justices an opportunity to hear from women’s rights and anti-abortion groups in a year with fewer of these cases than expected.

On Monday, the court chose not to take a case this term on abortions banned in Arizona after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Because the court declined, a lower court’s ruling stands that the ban is unconstitutional. The high court chose not to weigh in earlier this year on a similarly restrictive Texas law, leaving that law to take effect. The court also dismissed last year a case from Oklahoma that tested the use of pharmaceutical drugs in abortions.

National Law Journal correspondent Marcia Coyle explained to Gwen Ifill on the NewsHour Monday what the court’s recent reticence on the social issue means.

“We really don’t know what the court is thinking about. These cases, they could have had procedural problems. We don’t know. There’s lots of litigation going on. And it also means the court may see the question again, and maybe they will take a case.”

Pro-life groups have taken advantage of the situation. In recent years, the groups have moved away from opposing the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision directly and instead have shifted their focus to state legislatures.

Stephanie Condon at CBS News writes:

That strategy has clearly paid off: Currently, there are just seven states with governments dominated by pro-abortion rights lawmakers. By contrast, there are 21 where both the governor and a majority of the state legislature are opposed to abortion rights, according to an assessment from the group NARAL Pro-Choice America. In 2013, there were 53 measures passed at the state level that NARAL characterizes as “anti-choice,” and just 16 it calls pro-choice.

The conservative movement’s bold strategy has tested the bounds of the Supreme Court’s past rulings on abortion restrictions, and it has left abortion rights supporters playing defense.

Americans United for Life, a major player in pushing anti-abortion policy at the state level, released its “Life List” Monday, highlighting the states that “protect life in law,” the group’s press release said. It named the most pro-life states as Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Arizona and Pennsylvania. The states with the least pro-life laws are New Jersey, Oregon, Hawaii, Maryland and Nevada, the group said.

Marcia Coyle will be on the NewsHour Wednesday night to report what happened in court. You can tune in online at 6 p.m.


The House of Representatives is expected to vote Wednesday on a $1.1 trillion spending bill, funding the government through the end of the year and averting a government shutdown. The current funding bill expires at midnight.

The comprehensive spending bill announced Monday includes victories for Democrats and Republicans. Kwame Holman broke down the budget compromise on Thursday’s NewsHour and The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe followed up with Gwen Ifill.

“What that means basically is Congress and the federal government overall get back to normal order, to regular order,” O’Keefe told the NewsHour. “They now can go back to writing appropriations bills that outline specifically how money is supposed to be spent.”

While the House is expected to pass the bill, tea party-backed Republicans will likely oppose it. Conservative groups voiced their opposition to the compromise on Tuesday, as the House passed a stopgap measure to fund the government for the next three days. Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, encouraged lawmakers to vote “no” on the spending bill and will factor the vote into its legislative scorecard for each member of Congress.


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  • Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates joined Judy Woodruff to discuss his controversial new book, “Duty.” Gates also spoke about the war in Iraq, NSA surveillance, political polarization in Washington and the Senate’s effort to impose new sanctions on Iran. The former secretary told the NewsHour, “I think that the idea of imposing new sanctions right now is a terrible mistake and would be a strategic error.”
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Aileen Graef and Simone Pathe contributed to this report.

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Questions or comments? Email Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org.

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