Court voices doubts about abortion clinic buffer zones

1:03 PM, Jan 15, 2014   |    comments
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File image of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. from the Associated Press.

WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - The Supreme Court appeared deeply skeptical Wednesday of a Massachusetts law that created 35-foot buffer zones around abortion clinics.

Several of the court's conservative justices suggested the law went too far in restricting the free speech rights of people who want to prevent abortions from taking place.

Justice Antonin Scalia, leading the charge against the law, complained that the state calls those people "protesters." He called it a "counseling" case and said the goal of the challengers was "to comfort these women."

By pushing those people, led by 77-year-old Eleanor McCullen, to what one litigator called three-point range means that "what they can't do is try to talk the women out of the abortion," Scalia said.

The law is based on a Colorado buffer zone upheld by the Supreme Court in a 6-3 ruling 14 years ago. But that zone was just 8 feet deep, and it produced harsh objections from several justices -- including Anthony Kennedy, who appeared equally dubious about the Massachusetts law.

In fact, even liberal Justice Elena Kagan expressed doubts about the 35 feet, which she described as being the distance from the bench to the back of the marble courtroom. "Thirty-five feet is a ways," she said.

The state's buffer zone was enacted because of what officials said was past violence, disruption and congestion around most of the state's 11 reproductive health clinics. Much of the debate Wednesday focused on whether a less restrictive statute could have been written.


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