Skip to this page's content

Buffer Zone Law

Comm 310: Feature Writing
Jessica Ruids
Stand-alone, slice-of-life feature articles focus on a topic of interest to an identifiable niche audience but not tied to a specific news event or incident. Each article has a compelling "soft" lead, a clearly defined theme or "nut graph" high up in the story, sufficient background that an uninformed reader can navigate the piece without difficulty, and a vivid, well-crafted narrative that carries the reader to an ending that either kicks her back to the theme or forward to pursue other questions. Students follow Associated Press style and are asked to produce error-free copy for publication in campus or other newspapers.

As Emily walks to work, she keeps her head down and her shoulders high. It helps her deflect the sudden approach of a woman shouting wildly and waving a fistful of pamphlets in her face.

Emily seems indifferent to the picket signs, the man on his knees praying, the shouts and the chanting outside her office. This may be because she, and many other Planned Parenthood employees, walks past these sights daily.

A handful of protesters gathers on the sidewalk in front of the Boston Planned Parenthood every morning. They often approach patients and employees alike with antiabortion fliers and plastic fetus dolls.

Before Emily arrived this morning, a lady in a long white dress placed a lawn chair directly in front of the clinic's door while another woman set a picture of the Virgin Mary on the ground and conducted a prayer.

Now the woman in white is rocking back and forth in her chair and clutching a wooden cross. The other woman stands to the side of the clinic door shouting, "We are the voice of the unborn! Don't let your child be destroyed!" Emily recognizes the woman in white. She is one of the regulars.

"They definitely recognize me, too," she says. "Once they learn your name, usually they won't stop using it after that. They feel like maybe it makes a connection to you…but they haven't learned mine yet."

And she hopes it stays that way. Even though she says she is proud of where she works, she asks that her name be changed to protect her safety.

A Planned Parenthood April 2004 security briefing states: "Two regular protesters at a Planned Parenthood health center went to the residence of a Planned Parenthood clinician to picket with signs calling her a ‘baby-killer,' and to videotape conversations with her neighbors, passersby, etc." These protesters were charged with criminal harassment and were prohibited from using the employee's name outside of clinics and picketing against her in her hometown for one year.

One of those protesters is outside the clinic today.

Emily says she feels safe at work, but knows she has to be cautious. When she first started working at Planned Parenthood, spending some days as a clinic assistant and others as a receptionist, Emily says she found it overwhelming to think about the fatal shooting that occurred in two Brookline clinics in 1994.

The attack injured five people and killed two receptionists—"the people who would be me," she says.

Ever since the shooting, Boston lawmakers and Planned Parenthood have pushed for increased security measures at clinic sites. Now, anybody who enters the clinic on Commonwealth Avenue must pass through a metal detector. Emily's reception desk is behind bulletproof glass. And there are white lines painted on the sidewalk that mark a path from the street to the front door, indicating the law-mandated buffer zone between protesters and any person who enters the clinic.

But the Buffer Zone Law does not always work.

While protesters are technically allowed within the white lines, the law says they cannot come within six feet of patients and staff without consent. The problem with this,

Emily says, is that the protesters broadly define consent to include even a moment of eye contact.

Operation Rescue, the organization that plans most anti-abortion protests in Boston, provides members an analysis of the Buffer Zone Law on its Web site. The site tells protesters how to legally remain in the buffer zone by using their own interpretation of the word "approach."

"If you are standing on a sidewalk and someone is coming toward the clinic— approaching you—you are not required to move away, even within the 18-foot zone," it says.

According to a Planned Parenthood fact sheet, "the current law is nearly impossible to enforce due to its complexity and the vagueness of the language surrounding consent." It says protesters commonly violate the law by "blocking access to the front door," filming or taking pictures of patients and staff as they enter the clinic, and dressing up as Boston Police officers to approach patients asking for names and personal information.

A bill that would expand the current buffer zone is scheduled for Senate debate on Tuesday. If passed into law, it would create the largest buffer zones in the country: a 35- foot area around the entrances and driveways of all reproductive health facilities in Massachusetts.

Under the new law, protesters outside of the Commonwealth Avenue clinic would not be allowed on the sidewalk in front of the building at all. While Planned Parenthood says protesters could still shout and display signs from across the street, anti-abortion groups see the law as an infringement on free speech.

And while the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM) has a history of working with Planned Parenthood and supporting women's reproductive rights, they agree with anti-abortion groups with their stance on the Buffer Zone Law.

An ACLUM statement released last May says that the expanded Buffer Zone Law "would prohibit not only aggressive harassment and physical obstruction, but it would also ban silent witness, and even respectful efforts to distribute information and activities which are supportive of reproductive choice."

It takes some mental preparation to face the protesters, Emily says, even the ones engaging in "silent witness." While these people used to make her feel frustrated and angry, she says she is now used to their presence and does not let them bother her.

"There's not a lot I can do to prevent them from protesting, and there's not a lot they can do to prevent me from working," she says. "I really just try to keep that in perspective and know that I feel firmly about what I do and I believe strongly in my mission."

The patients that Emily sees, however, are usually not as prepared to face the protesters. She says they usually come in upset after seeing what is going on outside. Since protesters are allowed inside the buffer zone, Planned Parenthood has volunteers available to walk with patients into the clinics. Emily says their help is particularly useful on Saturdays and religious holidays that draw large crowds of protesters.

"We have volunteer escorts out there ready to shield people so they can walk from their car [to the clinic] and shield them from possible photos being taken of them and stuff like that," she says.

Most Planned Parenthood locations in the country offer similar services to help women enter their clinics. And since they cannot prevent people from picketing, some locations have turned opponents into unintentional fundraisers with "Pledge-A-Protestor" campaigns, where supporters pledge a certain amount of money for every protester outside the clinic.

The Boston clinic does not participate in this program, according to Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts spokesman Lisa Dacey. "We don't want to give [the protesters] any more publicity," she says.

The Buffer Zone Law is not intended to prevent protesters, and Emily knows that they will still be there to greet her every morning, even if the zone is expanded. She sees the expansion of the buffer zone simply as a step to ensure her safety, and the safety of her peers and patients.

Emily says she respects the rights of the protesters "as long as they're not breaking the law or harming anybody." She knows that people will always disagree with her job, and does not let the outspoken ones stop her from going into work every morning.

"They're going to try to make you feel bad," she says with a confident voice.

"And you just kind of have to know that you believe what you believe, and that you know in your heart that you are doing something good and right."