Decision on Mass. case could end protest buffers in Pittsburgh
The legality of a Pittsburgh ordinance could be in jeopardy if the U.S. Supreme Court declares the 35-foot buffer zones outside Massachusetts abortion clinics unconstitutional, abortion-rights advocates and opponents said.
“The underlying legal issues are very similar. The precedents are the same. If the court issues a dissenting decision, Pittsburgh may have to re-evaluate as well,” said Steven Aiden, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, the Christian conservative legal defense organization representing lead plaintiff Eleanor McCullen.
The nation's highest court heard arguments on Wednesday on the Massachusetts law. Though Massachusetts maintained that the zones are necessary for the privacy and protection of patients, McCullen's attorneys argued that any buffer zone violates free speech.
City Solicitor Lourdes Sanchez Ridge, who took office on Jan. 6, said on Thursday she was unfamiliar with the case but wasn't aware of any specific lawsuits challenging the Pittsburgh buffer zones.
Eight years ago, the alliance found itself in U.S. District Court, Downtown, representing Indiana Township's Mary K. Brown.
Brown, a longtime abortion opponent, sued the city in 2006 when it passed an ordinance that combined “bubble zones” — no less than 8 feet of personal space for patients entering the building — and “buffer zones,” which prohibit protesters from standing within 15 feet of the entrance to any reproductive health care facility where abortions take place.
U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer ruled in 2009 that the combination violated protesters' constitutional right to free speech. The city dropped the bubble zone later that year.
“We feel very fortunate to have that 15-foot buffer zone outside our door,” said Aleigha Cavalier, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania. “People can still say what they need to say, but this encourages everyone to do it in a peaceful, respectful way.”
At Planned Parenthood's Downtown location, protesters with pamphlets must stand outside the wide, yellow semi-circle on Liberty Avenue that marks the 15-foot buffer. Clinicians usually see three or four protesters a day, Cavalier said.
“On others, we see 100. Before the buffer zone, people would block the door,” she said. “It made for a tight situation on what is already a very busy street.”
Patients registered 16 complaints of harassment outside the clinic in 2004, according to CEO Kim Evert. She reported nearly double that in 2005. Buffer zones changed everything, Cavalier said.
Protesters outside Oakland's Magee-Womens Hospital often man the corner of Forbes and Craft avenues, waving signs at passersby.
UPMC spokeswoman Courtney McCrimmon said the facility hasn't recorded any related patient complaints in recent years, “at least not that I know of,” she said.
Cavalier said she was not aware of any recent complaints from clients of Planned Parenthood.
“We hope the Massachusetts law gets struck down,” said Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy adviser for national anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. “Just because someone doesn't like what you're saying doesn't mean that you shouldn't have the right to say it. And with abortion, there's more at stake than just the sharing of ideas.”
Most protesters try to speak to women entering these clinics in a friendly, conversational way, Sullenger said.
“But with a buffer zone 35 feet across, you can't do that,” she said. “You have to shout and wave just to get someone's attention. These women have the right to hear and respond to our ideas.”
Abortion rates in Pennsylvania have drastically declined since 1980, when 23.1 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 opted for abortion, the highest annual percentage ever recorded. That figure has hovered around 14 percent for nearly two decades, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Buffer zones are not just utilized in health care situations.
In a case before the D.C. Circuit last June, Judge Beryl Howell declared unconstitutional a 64-year-old law that banned organized protests and signs on the marble plaza in front of the Supreme Court.
Almost every state requires candidates and campaign staffers to mind protective zones outside election polling places. Pennsylvania and New Hampshire boast the smallest zones in the nation at 10 feet. Louisiana requires candidates to stay at least 600 feet away.
Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Tradition rules in Pittsburgh: Keep bridge color the same, poll finds
- Public implored to avoid iPhone cases that resemble guns
- Fireworks displays costly, but W. Pa. communities feel obligated
- Pitt researchers using grant to find cures for viruses from mosquitoes
- Plenty going on in Pittsburgh over holiday weekend
- Higher school taxes prevail in Western Pennsylvania, Trib finds
- July 4 road and river closures
- Wabash Tunnel to open to inbound, high-occupancy vehicles Saturday night
- Newsmaker: Tessa Jimenez
- South Side Slopes police chase ends with car into a front porch
- Pittsburgh a big draw for tourists on July 4th weekend