Colorado’s “buffer-zone” law – which creates a protective bubble between anti-abortion protesters and medical facilities, including those that perform abortions – likely remains safe despite Thursday’s unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court to strike down a similar law in Massachusetts.
Colorado’s buffer-zone law won’t be affected by Thursday’s ruling, said Durango lawyer and state House Rep. Michael McLachlan. He successfully defended the state’s buffer-zone law before the Supreme Court in 2000 while serving as the state’s solicitor general.
In a phone interview a few hours after the high court’s ruling Thursday, McLachlan said, “It’s certainly not a decision that is in any way going to end the legality of – or the debate about – abortion rights in the United States.
“But it’s important to understand that this is a setback for women in Massachusetts. It isn’t a setback for women’s freedom, health or abortion rights in Colorado,” he said, pointing to important differences between Colorado’s and Massachusetts’ laws.
Other legal minds worried that the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Massachusetts’ buffer-zone law, which barred protesters from coming within 35 feet of clinics that perform abortions, spelled trouble for similar state laws.
At liberal-leaning Mother Jones, legal commentator Molly Redden writes that in light of the court’s ruling, “buffer zones are basically dead.”
At Lifeguard, an anti-abortion group based in Durango, Shelley Gundrey, who is secretary to Lifeguard’s board of directors, said she was thrilled by the ruling.
“I think it’s great that they upheld our rights to the First Amendment and the fact that we have free speech,” she said.
“We do a prayer vigil outside of Planned Parenthood on Fridays – the day they do abortions, and we basically just pray, always over 100 feet from the front door. It makes it really difficult to talk to those girls going in,” she said.
Gundrey said while anti-abortion protesters have developed a reputation for trying to dissuade women from having abortions with violence and intimidation, Lifeguard’s anti-abortion protesters pose no threat to women trying to enter Durango’s Planned Parenthood.
“You definitely hear of every now and then some crazy kills somebody, and that’s horrible. We don’t advocate for any of those approaches. We believe in dignity of life for everybody, even the abortionists. I’m sure they have their struggles,” she said.
The ruling dismayed abortion-rights activists across the country.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed that the Supreme Court ruled against protecting women who want to access reproductive health care,” said Cathy Alderman, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains’ vice president of public affairs.
Alderman said the ruling does not directly impact Colorado’s buffer-zone law, which plays an important role protecting women trying to enter Planned Parenthood clinics in Denver and Colorado Springs from being harassed, threatened and abused by anti-abortion protesters.
The buffer zone is less relevant in Durango, she said because Planned Parenthood’s Durango clinic is on private property.
She said she expects Massachusetts’ Legislature to quickly pass another law reinstating buffer zones between protesters and medical facilities in a form that more closely models Colorado’s law.
Under Colorado’s buffer-zone law, it’s unlawful for protesters to come within 100 feet of medical facilities or 8 feet of people trying to enter them.
McLachlan, a Democrat who successfully established the constitutionality of Colorado’s buffer-zone law in the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision Hill v. Colorado, said the provisions in Colorado’s buffer-zone law are much narrower than those in the stricken Massachusetts law: Whereas Colorado’s buffer-zone law creates a protective bubble around all medical facilities, the stricken Massachusetts law specifically instated a 35-foot bubble around clinics that perform abortions.
McLachlan noted Justice Antonin Scalia said in a separate concurring opinion that Massachusetts’ law ran afoul of the First Amendment because it “singled out a group of speakers and treated them differently than other people. It was too broad,” he said.
He said the Supreme Court’s majority opinion striking the Massachusetts law, which was written by Chief Justice John Roberts and cosigned by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, actually affirms the constitutionality of Colorado’s buffer-zone law.
When states pass laws that intrude on citizens’ freedom of speech, he said they must meet a high constitutional bar by demonstrating that they have a “compelling interest” in enacting the law, such as protecting the health and safety of the public.
The stricken Massachusetts law was passed in 2007 in response to a history of harassment and violence at abortion clinics, including a deadly shooting rampage at two facilities in 1994.
In the court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that Massachusetts had a “compelling interest” in creating a buffer zone that allows women to enter clinics that perform abortions safely and without harassment. But Roberts said Massachusetts’ law burdens “substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the commonwealth’s asserted interests.”
McLachlan said while Colorado’s buffer-zone law is in no danger, the court’s ruling against Massachusetts “still shows that the debate in the U.S. about a woman’s right to choose and make reproductive decisions is far from over. It’s a historic battle for women’s freedom. And this is probably going to be a conflict in our society after I’m long gone and probably after you’re gone.”