Efforts to present abortion seeking women with the life-affirming alternative – similar to those practised at Aid to Women – received a boost in the United States in mid-February.
In a February 19 decision the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of pro-life counsellors to speak to patients entering abortion clinics. The ruling, which is seen as a tremendous freedom of speech victory, allows counsellors to speak to and walk alongside abortion-seeking women, so long as the counsellors do not go within 15 feet of the clinics themselves.
Eight of nine Supreme Court justices ruled that a “floating buffer zone” which restricted pro-lifers access to public byways, violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The overturned law was imposed by a New York judge who ordered pro-lifers to stay 15 away from any clinic patient or staff member, no matter where they were. That law was imposed in response to pro-life demonstration and sidewalk counselling in Buffalo and Rochester, New York.
“We strike down the floating buffer zones around people entering and leaving the clinics because they burden more speech than is necessary to serve the relevant government interests,” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote.
“The floating buffer zones prevent defendants from communicating a message from a normal conversational distance or handling leaflets to people entering or leaving the clinics who are walking on the public sideways.” Judge Rehnquist added. “Leafletting and commenting on matters of public concern are classic forms of speech that lie at the heart of the First Amendment.”
The only restriction remaining on sidewalk counsellors is while in fixed buffer zones, they must retreat from patients who indicate a desire to be left alone.
A number of pro-life groups were named as defendants in the original court action. However the Supreme Court ruling was the result of an appeal on behalf of two individual. Dwight Saunders of Williamsville, N.Y. and Rev. Paul Schenck, a Reformed Episcopal Church minister from Virginia Beach, Virginia.
While most pro-life supporters celebrated the ruling, some expressed reservations.
“The court wisely ruled that there is no such thing as a floating speech-free buffer zone of 15 feet that follows people who enter or exit an abortion clinic,” said Gary Bauer of the Washington-based Family Research Council. “But members of the court still gave abortion clinics a 15-foot circle of silence which stifles only pro-life speech. Even more disturbing is the court’s ruling that pro-life speech outside an abortion clinic can only be exercised with the consent of the listener. Six members of the court gave people entering and exiting abortion clinics the right to silence people who peacefully approach the. All over America, people mingle and share views, some welcome, some unwelcome. Why should people going into an abortion clinic have the right to silence others, a right not shared by people on public sidewalks approached by pollsters or panhandlers?
Bauer suggested the ruling underscores the importance of continued pro-life vigilance. “It appears that our words are being heard and are having an effect,” he said Bauer also praised the Supreme Court for upholding the Constitution rather than using the courts for social engineering.
Canadian pro-life supporters are watching the U.S. ruling with interest. They wonder if the decision will have any impact on restrictive legislation in British Columbia and Ontario which for years has stifled pro-life witnessing around abortion clinics. Linda Gibbons, a prominent and successful counsellor, is a victim of Ontario’s injunction against pro-life work.