In late November, a Massachusetts court struck down a law designed to quiet the battleground surrounding abortion clinics, where patients and staff are often besieged by activists trying to prevent what they regard as murder. The law had established protest-free zones around clinics. According to District Judge Edward Harrington, that was an unconstitutional regulation of speech. It's unclear, though, if his view will carry the day.
The law's supporters hope it won't. According to Melissa Kogut, director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League, "It's very narrowly tailored….We're talking about a six-foot bubble zone within an 18-foot diameter of doors, entrances, and driveways." She adds, "All we're trying to do is decrease tension by keeping people away physically. Women should be able to receive health care free from intimidation."
Such arguments didn't impress Judge Harrington. "The statute is a regulation of speech and the content of the only speech regulated is the subject of abortion," he wrote. The law may also be gratuitous: Congress has already enacted the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act to deter activists from physically interfering as patients enter clinics. And physical intimidation and harassment, in any context, are already criminal offenses. Nonetheless, the state's attorney general is appealing the ruling, and the federal appeals court has stayed Harrington's injunction in the meantime, leaving the law in force.
With the FDA's recent decision to permit trade in RU-486, the abortion pill, the issue may soon be less pressing. The pill won't shut down abortion clinics, but it may disperse their opponents, as abortions move into ordinary doctor's offices and women's own homes.