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Buffer Zones, Clinic Escorting, and the Myth of the Quiet Sidewalk Counselors

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The Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts "buffer zone" law -- which barred antiabortion protests immediately outside clinics. Justice Scalia portrayed the law as hindering 'sidewalk counselors' who lovingly entreated women to consider alternatives. This portrayal, embodied by the grandmotherly petitioner, allowed some to view the decision as protecting gentle civility. Referencing one particular Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston, this "quiet counseling" was seen as well-intentioned, and, more importantly, constitutional.

It is also a myth -- or at least a dramatic euphemism that applies to very few at the Boston site. I should know. I was there.

For four years, I volunteered as an escort on Saturday mornings. The scene described in the court -- like a delusional game of telephone -- was drastically different from reality.

Our mornings were mostly spent scanning the streets, attempting to spot patients before they approached the zealous spectacle. We'd tactfully ask if they were looking for the clinic, and walk them through the crowd.

Saturdays were favored by protesters, so escorts arrived in the early morning. Wearing identifying vests, we flanked the entrance and greeted patients outside the zone. Two would rotate to the back to watch the garage entrance, where only the more tenacious protestors wandered. We'd accompany patients up the long walk to the front, usually trailed by someone asking if Satan sent us. (He didn't.)

During the freezing New England winters, we would briefly warm up inside, but were mostly left to stomp our feet and count how many toes we could feel. Once a month, a Christian band would show up, surreally, and hold a concert.

We knew the "quiet counseling" well. "Just like Auschwitz," one would say, "you're delivering them right into the furnace." This particular protester would speak right into her ear -- until he approached the painted line on the ground.

Sometimes, a male accompanying a patient would lose his cool. He could have been her boyfriend or brother. We didn't know and never asked. Once they entered, the doors could burst back open and he would charge whichever protestor called his companion a whore. We would intervene.

Justice Alito felt the law represented "viewpoint discrimination" -- constitutionally, one message can't be favored over another. But as an escort, I never talked about abortion, even outside the zone. When guiding patients, I would detail what they could expect. I didn't offer my perspective, or even criticize the protestors. My goal was to provide a calming presence seconds before what would be one of the more trying moments of their lives. I explained how to access the clinic, and maintained a low patter to distract them from strangers calling them beasts and murderers. If they were confused by the protestors' Boston Police hats, we cleared that up too.

If the patient was African-American, the protestors said they were "lynching" their child. If the protestor was crying, they said the tears would never stop, even in hell. If a patient was with her mother, they thanked the mother -- for not killing her own baby.

Surprisingly, those Saturdays were not without their lighter moments. For a group dedicated to attacking Planned Parenthood -- a multi-purpose clinic -- they seemed stunned when someone wasn't seeking an abortion. "You'll never be the same. You'll always be a dirty killer," one would say. A startled patient would respond, "Why would a Pap smear make me a dirty killer?" Many others sought birth control -- though they didn't approve of that either.

This is not to paint all protesters as unhinged. I still remember one young priest who didn't condemn me and chose instead to make small talk -- which we continued periodically. Another time, upon news of the Columbia shuttle deteriorating upon reentry, we all shared a collective moment of humanity.

Being in a college area, there were counter-protestors (also kept out of the buffer zone) -- who promoted pro-choice politics through direct and shocking slogans. Many of us didn't care for them either. We just wanted calm in an atmosphere of invective and hysteria.

The desire for calm stemmed, in part, from the 1994 Brookline shootings. The victims were known by some of my fellow volunteers. This very real risk led the police to call for a buffer zone. One of the victims, a 25-year-old receptionist, was not just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The murder was premeditated; her killer focused on her.

Even when I was there, clinic staff driving up would be greeted with protestors filming them and, not so subtly, stating the staffer's home address. Those were the more chilling moments.

It is difficult (though not impossible) to argue that a unanimous Supreme Court case was wrongly decided. After all, it is a broad law. But that is not my goal. Instead, I'm writing to dispel the myth painted of Good Samaritans softly offering a helping hand. In the public relations war over whether the affected individuals were compassionate counselors or marauding bullies, many justices seemed to accept the former characterization.

The law was overturned as an overreaching infringement on free speech. Is this a free speech issue? Yes, of course it is. But as others have pointed out, buffer zones exist elsewhere, including outside the Supreme Court. Favoring free speech, the Court famously allowed Nazis to march in Illinois and, more recently, the Phelps church to picket funerals (at a distance). But parades and funerals eventually end. Here, the Court risks turning clinic entrances into permanently hostile environments -- inciting those who have spent weeks agonizing over their decision. They overturned the express wishes of an elected legislature -- including pro-life lawmakers who supported the measure in the interest of public safety.

Similar zones were upheld by the court in 2000, a ruling which was not overturned. Clinic entrances still cannot be blocked, and injunctions are allowed against particularly worrisome parties. Chief Justice Roberts even suggested other mechanisms the state can use in lieu of the zone. But it's an ever-changing landscape, and those remaining precautions have become the next targets of these quiet counselors. Because, to those that brought the case, speech alone is not the goal.

The grueling decision of whether to have an abortion should never be taken lightly, and there is no shortage of advocates for either side that fill our collective eardrums. But that debate stops a few feet outside the clinic. Just like politicking outside voting booths, these last ditch efforts lose the veneer of debate and become akin to intimidation -- which can easily morph into confrontation or devastating anguish. Anyone who wants to stop and chat can do so. But once patients decide to cross the line, they should be left alone. The Court noted that the environment is currently more peaceful than it once was. There's a reason for that.

None of this is to say that this isn't a legitimate debate. It is. But those who favor stripping the buffer zone away -- what small help it is -- shouldn't kid themselves into thinking that a flood of polite conversation will follow. It will be ugly, and it will escalate.