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Liam Lowney does not talk about his sister, Shannon Elizabeth Lowney, without first gushing about her personality. She was bright and intelligent, a talented student and passionate musician with an “infectious smile,” he says. Only then will he discuss how she died: On December 30, 1994, as she worked the front desk at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts, a man named John C. Salvi entered and riddled her face with bullets.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in McCullen v. Coakley, a case in which anti-abortion-rights activists are challenging a Massachusetts law—passed partially in response to Lowney’s murder—that bans protests within 35 feet of an entrance to an abortion clinic. The petitioners claim the law violates their First Amendment rights. Eleanor McCullen, the lead challenger, is a septuagenarian grandmother whose refrigerator is barely visible beneath all the baby photos that she says were sent to her by women she encountered outside clinics and persuaded not to proceed with an abortion.
But Massachusetts’s buffer zone was not created in response to peaceful protesters like those waged by McCullen and others. It was written in response to people like Salvi and those protesters who have used physical force to block women from obtaining abortions. Even after Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci signed a modest buffer zone into law in 2000, Massachusetts’s abortion clinics were swamped by protesters who physically barred women from entering. Yet lawyers for McCullen aren’t merely asking the court to strike down the extended 35-foot buffer zone, which Massachusetts established in 2007; they are asking the justices to ban all buffer zones outside abortion clinics.
Attorneys for the ACLU, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, concede that buffer zones do impinge on free speech, but they contend this is necessary to protect the competing constitutional right to obtain an abortion. To prove that point, the ACLU compiled police reports, oral testimonies, and written statements that describe how difficult it had become in Massachusetts to obtain or provide an abortion before the 35-foot buffer zone was implemented in 2007. The following excerpts offer a glimpse of the pandemonium that often reigned outside Massachusetts’s clinics before this law was enacted.
Gail Kaplan, a patient escort at the Boston Planned Parenthood clinic, speaking to the Massachusetts Legislature in 2007:
The protestors are moving closer and closer to the main door. They scream and block the way for the patients to get into the clinic. We fill out police reports almost every week regarding the way they encroach upon the door, but nothing has changed…They’re getting so close that patients are terrified to even walk into the clinic.
I have often been spit upon while escorting a patient into the clinic since they got so close to me while shouting their protests…When it rains, they bring these huge umbrellas and try to knock the escorts out of the way.
Michael T. Baniukiewicz, head of security for Planned Parenthood facilities in Massachusetts, in a sworn 2007 affidavit:
I have observed two regular protesters standing by the PPLM-Boston garage entrance in Boston Police hats and jerseys…I saw them wearing Brookline Police hats and jerseys while standing near the entrance to the parking lot in front of Women’s Health Services.
They carried clipboards and had patients write on clipboards. These patients appeared to be frightened and upset when they learned that they were not police. Patients informed me that they had provided their names, addresses, and telephone numbers.
Baniukiewicz, in a 2007 deposition:
They place four of their protesters, especially on Saturdays, right on the curbstone of the buffer zone, so when people try to park there to let a patient out, they can’t get out.
On a weekly basis…they probably have at least one or two women who leave because they’re afraid to enter the parking lot because they block the parking lot entranceway.
The safety issue is scary…The protesters will look to start a fight, and obviously that’s keeping people from entering the building.
Vanessa B. in a harassment incident report filed with Boston police, December 5, 1998:
One person was carrying a fake baby doll and was yelling, “It’s alive. You see what you’re doing!” Another person had a tape recorder and was playing a tape with a child crying, “Mommy, Mommy”…Bad enough I was scared coming here, afraid I might get shot…They made me scared, but they are not running me away because I have rights too.
Karen Caponi, a nurse practitioner and director of the Worcester Planned Parenthood clinic, speaking to the Massachusetts state Legislature in 1999:
One of our of physicians has been threatened with “I’m watching you” and “You won’t be smiling for long.”
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