No More Abortion Clinic Safe Zones? Supreme Court to Decide Fate of 'Bubble Laws'

The young woman walks along a sidewalk toward an abortion clinic. She’s intercepted by an older woman she doesn’t know. They talk. The older woman motions toward a van parked in the street. There’s no sound, so it’s hard to tell, but the older woman says something like, “C’mon, with me.” The young woman nods and follows and then the older woman opens the door to a van parked in the street and helps the young woman climb inside.

Depending on whom you ask, it’s either a compassionate interaction marked by concern, or the kind of creepy stranger run-in parents warn their children against every day.

The interaction was staged as part of a promotional video for Save the Storks, a Colorado Springs-based nonprofit that teams with anti-abortion Crisis Pregnancy Centers to place interceptors and sonogram vans outside abortion clinics. The company has so far partnered with centers in Texas and New Jersey. There’s no Save the Storks van on the streets of Colorado yet, perhaps partly because intercepting a woman on the street outside an abortion clinic, as depicted in the video, would likely violate Colorado’s “bubble law,” passed in 1993 and upheld in a series of court battles that ended with the 2000 Supreme Court ruling in Hill v Colorado affirming its constitutionality.

Colorado’s law is in the news this week because it’s knocking around the halls of the Supreme Court again. The court is revisiting questions about clinic buffer zones in McCullen v. Coakley — a Massachusetts case that pits the right to free expression against public safety concerns and the right not to be harassed.

The Colorado law creates a 100-foot buffer zone around all health clinics in the state and within that zone makes it illegal to “knowingly approach within eight feet of another individual to pass a pamphlet, show a sign or engage in oral protest education or counseling without consent,” as Kristen Gowan summarized it in a 2001 legal paper.

Social media was buzzing with information and commentary about buffer zones yesterday during court arguments and photos of the New Jersey Save the Stork van flickered through the Twittersphere.

The Save the Storks woman in the video is older, motherly. So is the plaintiff in the Massachusetts case, Eleanor McCullen. They’re un-intimidating anti-abortion figures, but the motivation to pass buffer- and bubble-zone laws stems from a long history of aggressive, often threatening and sometimes murderous interventions at clinics. Doctors have been assassinated. Clinics shot up. Workers and patients killed and wounded. Property has been vandalized. Bullets have been left as warning messages at clinic entranceways.

Colorado U.S. Rep Diana DeGette introduced the Colorado bubble law when she was a state legislator twenty years ago. It was the first such law passed in the nation.

“At that time protesters were blocking the entrances to these healthcare clinics, they were also going right into the face of patients and trying to intimidate them and stop them from going in. It wasn’t just at abortion clinics, it was full-service clinics and buildings that included clinics,” she told the Independent.

DeGette said she designed the legislation as best she could to balance concerns for free expression against those for privacy and safety.

Jeannie Hill, who led the legal challenge against the law, described herself at the time as an abortion counselor. She said she intended no harm or intimidation to clinic patients. She only tried to talk them out of getting abortions.

Republican State Senator Owen Hill is a board member for Save the Storks. He didn’t return messages seeking comment on the organization or on the Supreme Court case on buffer zones.

DeGette feels that the Save the Stork mission would likely end up crossing the line established by the bubble bill.

“If someone is trying to approach a patient to talk them out of a procedure or try to prevent them from entering a clinic, then this bill would apply to them,” said DeGette. The bill covers aggressive 300-pound men, kindly older women and self-described abortion counselors like Jeannie Hill.

Joe Baker, founder of Save the Storks, said his organization has focused on other states simply because Colorado is not a top priority for their work. He said Storks employees act nothing like the clinic protesters whose aggressiveness motivated DeGette to introduce the bubble bill.

“You won’t catch us chaining ourselves to any doors or something goofy like that,” he said. “We are out there providing a service. We’re not there to debate anyone. In fact it’s in our manual never to engage in debate.”

Baker said the organization is personally, not politically, motivated.

“We don’t have signs or megaphones. We’re approachable. People like us. We have a positive relationship with abortion clinic staff, even though we dramatically disagree…Whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice, if these women feel cornered, we should all agree that we should try to provide resources.”

For Karen Middleton, executive director at NARAL Pro-choice Colorado, it’s the blurring of the personal and political that charged her response to the work of organizations like Storks.

“I just find it to be offensive and uncalled for,” she said, referring to the way the vans park outside of clinics. “Is it legal? Yes. Is it moral? I don’t think so. Clearly they think they have a moral high ground on trying to impose their beliefs on others, but it’s out of step with the mainstream. Most folks want their privacy respected.”

Barker said his organization’s activities, including Hill’s involvement and input, shouldn’t be considered political.

“We’re not trying to change any laws,” said Baker. “We actually have a number of donors that are both Democrats and Republicans… [Hill] is just interested in the ministry. He loves what we do.”

Supreme Court watchers reported that, based on discussion from the bench yesterday, buffer and bubble zones may be on the chopping block. The court is more conservative now than it was in 2000 when it upheld Colorado’s law. What’s more, the political climate has changed. The anti-abortion push at state houses around the country since the 2010 “Republican wave” election has seen dramatic laws passed that limit pregnant women’s options. Clinics have been shuttered. The windows of pregnancy in which abortions are legal have narrowed. Abortion doctors have been forced to introduce political not medical processed in treating their patients.

At the Colorado capitol in Denver Thursday, Republicans in the House introduced a hard-line anti-abortion bill that would declare fertilized human eggs legal persons, outlawing emergency contraception and abortion in all cases. It would make performing an abortion a Class-Three felony.

Pro-life Sen. Hill so far has not signed on as a cosponsor of the House bill, nor has pro-life Representative Amy Stephens. Both lawmakers are running in statewide elections to replace Democrat Mark Udall in the U.S. Senate.

Colorado has voted down personhood ballot initiatives in a series of elections. The 2012 personhood initiative didn’t garner enough signatures to make the ballot. Another personhood initiative has been proposed this year.

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