November 26, 2013

Maine asks Supreme Court to uphold health-clinic buffers

The Supreme Court’s ruling on a Mass. case could affect a similar law just enacted in Portland.


By Dennis Hoey dhoey@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Maine has joined 12 other states in filing a “friend-of-the-court” brief that asks the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a Massachusetts law establishing a 35-foot buffer zone around reproductive health care clinics.

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A pedestrian walks past anti-abortion protesters on Congress Street in Portland near the Planned Parenthood clinic on Oct. 4. Maine’s attorney general and her colleagues from 12 other states have signed onto a “friend-of-the-court” brief in support of protest-free buffer zones outside reproductive health clinics that provide abortions.

Shawn Patrick Oulette / Staff Photographer

Related Documents

PDF: Amicus Brief to Supreme Court

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case on Jan. 15, according to a press release issued Monday by New York state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.

“States have a strong interest in ensuring that citizens have full and safe access to necessary health care,” Schneiderman wrote.

The buffer zone in Massachusetts can be traversed only by individuals seeking access to a clinic or by those passing through the zone on their way to another destination.

The Massachusetts law is similar to one adopted last week by the Portland City Council. Portland councilors voted to create a 39-foot buffer zone around the entrance to Planned Parenthood of Northern New England on Congress Street.

Soon after the council’s vote, Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills came out in support of Portland’s buffer zone. Mills could not be reached on Monday, but her office issued a statement last week explaining her position and why she was joining the friend-of-the-court brief.

“A woman has the right to access health care without fear and harassment,” Mills said in the statement. “The Massachusetts statute simply seeks to enhance public safety near reproductive health care facilities by establishing a clear and valid framework for any protected free speech activities that others seek to exercise in the vicinity.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Massachusetts case could decide the fate of Portland’s new limits on anti-abortion protesters.

Massachusetts’ law bans people from remaining within 35 feet of the entrances of facilities that offer or perform abortions.

A federal District Court in Massachusetts held that the law was constitutional, and an appeals court affirmed that ruling.

Protesters in Portland have said they will sue the city for violating their constitutionally protected free speech rights, although they had not filed anything as of Monday.

A group of 10 to 20 protesters has stood outside the entrance to the clinic on Friday mornings for the past year, and sometimes on other days, as well. They hold signs promoting adoption and showing enlarged pictures of fetuses in the womb and bloody body parts from abortions. They also have handed out anti-abortion pamphlets and spoken to women entering the clinic, or to people passing by.

Leslie Sneddon has protested outside Planned Parenthood for 18 months.

Sneddon said the city’s new buffer zone has not had as great an impact as some might have thought. She can still stand on the sidewalk on the same side of the street as the clinic, and she talks to passers-by and hands out leaflets. But she must stand outside the 39-foot buffer zone, which is marked by an orange stripe painted on the ground and a sign warning people about the zone.

“We are abiding by the law,” Sneddon said.

Sneddon said Monday night that she is not aware of any protesters filing a court challenge to the buffer zone. That could change, depending on what happens at the U.S. Supreme Court, she said.

In the meantime, protesters are counting how many people entering and leaving the clinic they are unable to talk to. They are also filming clinic activity, Sneddon said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has tried to remain neutral on Portland’s buffer zone.

“Buffer zones are a complicated issue because of the need to uphold both the right of the protesters to free speech and the right of the patients to access their health care unimpeded. Courts have traditionally upheld buffer zones similar to the one in Portland. I’m sure all sides will be watching to see what the Supreme Court decides in Massachusetts and how that decision will apply here at home,” said Rachel Healey, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Maine.

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