First Circuit Again Upholds Massachusetts’ Clinic Buffer Zone Law


On Wednesday a federal appeals court upheld the buffer zone law for Massachusetts abortion clinics, holding that the regulations strike the appropriate constitutional balance between protecting the rights of patients and the speech rights of clinic protestors.

The law creates a 35-foot fixed buffer zone around the driveways and entrances of clinics. Anti-choice activists challenged the law, arguing the buffer zone unconstitutionally infringes on the speech rights of those who want to engage in “anti-abortion counseling” outside clinics.

The court has twice upheld an earlier version of the law in 2001 and again in 2004. The law was revised in 2007 which sparked a host of new legal challenges.

In its opinion the First Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed that while abortion may remain a divisive issue for some, ultimately it is a legal medical procedure and those in need are entitled to safe passage to and from clinics. “Few subjects have proven more controversial in modern times than the issue of abortion,” the court held. “The nation is sharply divided about the morality of the practice and its place in a caring society. But the right of the state to take reasonable steps to ensure the safe passage of persons wishing to enter health care facilities cannot seriously be questioned.”

Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office defended the law, praised the decision in a statement.

“We are pleased that the court has once again upheld the Commonwealth’s buffer zone law which provides safe access to reproductive health care facilities while preserving freedom of expression,” Coakley, said in a statement. “We have always believed, and the court agreed, that the buffer zone leaves open the opportunity for civil engagement on public areas around these facilities while ensuring that patients and health care providers can safely access these facilities.”

The First Circuit decision will likely be appealed.

The legal battle over buffer zones demonstrates the continuing effectiveness, indeed the necessity of the FACE Act. As anti-choice activists push for the re-criminalization of abortion and as more and more clinics close due to TRAP regulations and the push by Catholic organizations to merge with as many health care providers as possible, the number of actual clinics providing abortion care has dwindled to alarming scarcity in many places. Protecting the rights and health of women and clinic workers becomes an even greater priority in such a climate, and this reality at the heart of the First Circuit’s opinion.

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