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WASHINGTON, D.C., January 13, 2014 (LifeSiteNews.com) – On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments as to whether a statewide buffer zone around abortion clinics violates the First Amendment.

Created in 2007, the Massachusetts buffer zone law in dispute prevents most people from going within 35 feet of any clinic in the state. The law, which targets pro-life activists, has been challenged by Eleanor McCullen, a longtime sidewalk counselor. 

According to Politico, McCullen, who is 76, “says she's personally spent more than $50,000” on her pro-life efforts. Her work includes standing outside the Boston Planned Parenthood facility on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, buying baby supplies, and providing money for rent and electric bills for women she meets who are in need. 

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The law has been challenged on First Amendment grounds, in part because it includes exceptions, including for “agents” of the abortion clinic.

Judicial Crisis Network chief counsel and policy director Carrie Severino told LifeSiteNews.com that the barrier “is an affront to the First Amendment. It amounts to a gag order on sidewalk counselors while leaving abortion clinic representatives free to speak in favor of abortion.”

“There are plenty of state and federal laws on the books to address issues of alleged harassment or intimidation,” Severino continued. “Peaceful offers of help and prayer by the thousands of sidewalk counselors like Eleanor McCullen should not be blocked because of a few alleged bad actors years and even decades ago.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has argued that the law is “content neutral.” Coakley, who ran for the Senate in 2010 and is currently running for governor of Massachusetts, will be attending the hearings on Wednesday.

In a USA TODAY op-ed published on Saturday, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts President Martha Walz claimed the law was a necessary response to “violent, extremist antiabortion protesters led by Operation Rescue” in the 1980s and a shooting at an abortion clinic in 1994 that killed one employee and injured three more.

Walz introduced the law in question as legislation in 2007 while serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. During that time, Walz says, she “experienced…aggressive intimidation firsthand” from pro-life activists, including from one activist who allegedly “screamed” at her.

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Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts did not respond to multiple requests for comment from LifeSiteNews.com asking why Walz believes the law does “not violate anyone's First Amendment right to free speech.” 

Americans United for Life senior counsel Clarke Forsythe pushed back on Walz's claims. “The McCullen case is devoid of any cases of violence,” he told LifeSiteNews.com. “Violence and harassment are already covered by state and federal criminal laws. The buffer zones limit speech, and they're obviously intended to limit speech.” 

McCullen v. Coakley is seen as a possible watershed case for barriers in place in other states. Portland, Maine, for example, has a 39-foot barrier around its only abortion clinic, and legislation has been introduced in Pennsylvania for a statewide 15-foot buffer zone. The Pennsylvania bill is unlikely to advance in the Republican-dominated legislature. 

Severino said that “the Court's decision could affect women nationwide, as other states will take their cue from how the Massachusetts law fares. If it is struck down, fewer states will be willing to carry water for Planned Parenthood by creating speech-free zones around abortion clinics.” 

Forsythe said the Court has multiple options available to it. “The Court's decision could make buffer zones that sweep pro-lifers off public property unconstitutional, or it could limit its Hill v. Colorado case in 2000. Or the Court could strike down broad buffer zones,” he said. 

Hill v. Colorado is a 2000 Supreme Court decision in favor of a 100-foot buffer around hospitals. The Court decided that since the law was equally applied, and a valid government interest was found, the law itself was constitutional. 

The 2007 law is the second law in the state to limit pro-life interactions at clinics. The first was an 18-foot “floating” barrier passed in 2000, but Coakley argued it did not do enough. Masslive.com reports that Coakley and Planned Parenthood each claim the original law allowed protestors to touch people going into the clinic, block entrances, and engage in other similar behavior. 

The Supreme Court is expected to decide the case, which was overturned by two lower courts, by June. The legal brief can be seen here.

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