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Decision on Mass. case could end protest buffers in Pittsburgh

| Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

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 mharris@tribweb.com.

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