Feminism in Action: Concrete Tip #6 (Buffed)

If you are new to this series, please check out the first post which explains the origin, the background and has a couple ground rules: Feminism in Action: Concrete Tip #1

Special note: I fact-check, I spell-check, I grammar-check and I check for broken links. If you see errors, please send me a message, don’t let me stay out here with toilet paper trailing from the soles of my intellectual shoes.

Support women’s rights to control over our own bodies. Support buffer zones. Support abortion clinics and believe them when they talk about the best ways to serve women in their communities. Admit that you have a stake in women’s reproductive health rights but you shouldn’t have a deciding vote.

Oh, and sign this petition to express your outrage at the SCOTUS ruling.

Before we jump to “why,” please take a moment to complete this post’s short thought exercise:

When was the last time you were nervous heading into somewhere/something? A work meeting where you were presenting? A first date? A party where you weren’t going to know many people? A job interview? OK, got that feeling pulled up? How are you feeling just thinking about what it was like?

I’m writing on this topic right now because of all of the recent news about the buffer zone decision. I admit, the mere concept of a buffer zone stokes some first-amendment willies in the average freedom-loving American (that includes me, for sure!). There’s just something about telling us where we can/can’t say stuff and restricting access (in any way) to public spaces (like sidewalks) that riles us up. And rightly so. We’ve had some pretty good success as a nation in resisting being controlled or bossed around without our consent. Our national motto could easily be: “I’m an American, DON’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO!”

So, from that perspective, we identify with the protesters. They have a right to voice their discontent and that right should not be infringed, right? Because when we want to protest something, we don’t want someone else telling us how or where or when we can protest, right? DAMN RIGHT. Seems fitting that this decision and ensuing discussion is coming so close to Independence Day.

But let me try to stoke a different side of the American spirit.

Going about your day, doing stuff on your list, do you want people touching you? Blocking your way? Yelling in your face?

Heck, just think of walking down a city street and seeing a pack of bright-eyed optimists clutching clipboards, raising money for a charity and  waving in your general direction. How do you feel just seeing one between you and where you need to go? I know, right? If you’re like me, you think, “Ugh, I don’t have time for this shit. Get out of my way.”

Now, take a minute and picture a buffer zone. What does it look like to you? How far do you think people are being kept away? When you picture it, does it look like this? Do you picture something like the photos below (even though it is a bit of hyperbole), like people are pushed real far away so their voices are effectively silenced?

Relaxing in the Desert far away

In my experience, most people I know haven’t seen a buffer zone in person. At least not one in action. The first buffer zone law in this state was six feet (2000). Six feet. It law said that within 18 feet of an entrance, people need to stay six feet away from you. In 2007, the law was changed (because it was hard to enforce and thus rarely enforced). The newer law restricted standing/stopping within 35 feet. Read that again. Can you go into the buffer zone? Most people not familiar with the issue assume that you’re not allowed inside the buffer zone. FALSE.  Most buffer zone laws on the books just have restrictions on what you can and cannot do within the buffer zone.

With the most current law (2007), you can enter the buffer zone as long as you are walking from one point to another, you just can’t stay in one spot. Protesters can walk through the zone over and over again, and they do. As a patient seeking medical care, you still have to make it within 35 feet of the clinic, before that, people can come as close as they want and do/say whatever they want to you. They can grab your arm, touch you, yell in your face. Yes, technically that’s illegal but I never once saw a protester arrested for doing it while the cops were on duty. Then once you’re in this zone, any protester can still come in (as long as they walk from one point to another) and continue to harass you. THIS is why clinic escorts exist.

Here’s a real idea of what the buffer zone looks like:

bufferzone    barrier1
This is the Boston-area Planned Parenthood buffer zone as seen from both sides.

Look, it’s not that you can’t go in that yellow circle. It’s that within that circle, you can’t stand still. It means the space has to stay clear for entering and exiting because, by the laws of physics, if you got enough people to stand in a wall (or to fill the yellow circle) in front of the entrance, no one would be able to get in. Does keeping an entrance/exit clear really seem like a hardship to you?

Even those of you who are excited for the impact of this law on buffer zones at the DNC or RNC, do you think it’s an injustice to keep an entrance/exit clear? I’m not talking about 100-ft or 200-ft buffer zones where the goal is to curtail free speech. I’m talking about this kind of buffer zone.

Those photos above are naked buffer zones. Let’s take a look at how they look filled with protesters:

PORTPROTEST010413 2.jpegbzboston bzdc bzmass PORTPROTEST010413 2.jpeg bzrichmond

If you want to see what it looks live, check out the Frontline documentary: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/social-issues/watch-murder-on-abortion-row/ 

Do you want to walk through that to get an STI test, cancer screening or a pap smear?


Chart source: http://www.factcheck.org/2011/04/planned-parenthood/

~97% of women going into a Planned Parenthood aren’t going for an abortion but they are subjected to anti-choice protesting activities. In some areas, Planned Parenthood is the ONLY place to get affordable regular care. 

There are lots of place I don’t like or agree with politically. Wal-Mart. I detest Wal-Mart with a fiery passion. You know what I do? I don’t shop there. I educate people whenever I have an opportunity to educate. I don’t stand in front of a Wal-Mart grabbing people and shoving photos of exploitative labor in their faces. That’s about shopping.

Healthcare is a lot more stressful. Think about how you feel going into a doctor’s office. At a minimum you might be worried they won’t take you on time or they won’t have your referral on file, or about the cost of the co-pay. At a minimum there’s some stress even for the easy stuff.

Look at that chart again. STI testing? Cancer screening? Sound like something you sashay into? Do you want someone yelling and screaming at you as you try to get in the door? And the ~3% of women heading in for an abortion? Do you think that’s a choice they made lightly? Do you think yelling and screaming and grabbing people counts as last-minute counseling? And where will those anti-choice protesters be if a woman is scared out of an abortion and has the baby. Will they be there with help? With money? Diapers? Child care? Imagine a crowd of people trying to block your entrance to the dentist as you head in for a root canal. Do you keep going or do you maybe turn around and not want to deal with it?

The next thing I want to talk about is the perception the buffer zone law and its enforcement favored the clinic or pro-choice activists. Some years ago, I participated in a weekend counter-protest in front of the local Planned Parenthood. On the weekends, a large group of anti-choice protesters (50-100+ people) held a “mass” along the sidewalk and the police set up corrals for them and for the pro-choice counter action (20 people on a good morning). Allocating equal space along the sidewalk and in compliance with the buffer zone, how would that look?

Like this?
bad zone


Actually, it looked like this:
bad zone 2
**These are my own hand drawings. Here’s the view from an illustration from The New York Times:

protest zones

The protest zones along Comm Ave in the NYT illustration are divided the way I’ve indicated above. The police allocated all of the prime real estate to anti-choice protesters. They gave them front row while pushing a friendly, supportive voice out into the street. The cops effectively silenced us by putting us behind a wall of anti-choice activists. You know what happened? Nothing. So when anti-choice activists try to tell you that this fight is about free speech, ask them what they did when the rights of pro-choice activists were being denied. They didn’t do a darn thing because this fight isn’t about free speech; it’s about their getting unfettered access to harass patients and medical professionals.

This is not about the first amendment or free speech. This is about protecting the rights of women to seek legal medical care and the rights of doctors and nurses to provide legal medical care. SAY IT WITH ME: This is not about the first amendment or free speech. This is about protecting the rights of women to seek legal medical care and the rights of doctors and nurses to provide legal medical care.

How do I know? As I said, I participated in the counter-protests for a few years. I was there. Just think about that. I saw numerous violations of the buffer zone law. It was quite typical for the anti-choice protesters to send an old lady or small child into the buffer zone to approach women, grab their arm, wave signs or yell right in their faces. I saw anti-choice protesters dressed as cops (against the law, by the by) to confuse and misdirect women. I saw anti-choice protesters filming and photographing us, the clinic escorts and patients in an attempt to intimidate. The cops did nothing. Anti-choice protesters walked up to the clinic door, knocked loudly and yelled to try to intimidate those already inside and the cops did nothing.

Eventually, the clinic staff asked us to not counter-protest. Because from far away it just looks like a larger, scarier group of people and women coming to the clinic couldn’t see the difference. They told us that volunteering as escorts would be more helpful. We said, “OK, we’ll do that.” We didn’t argue with their expertise or somehow try to say we knew more about what was helpful to their patients.

I’m actually tempted to say: if you haven’t been there, you don’t know and if you don’t know, you don’t get to have an opinion. It’s easy to say buffer zone laws are unconstitutional if you haven’t seen how they function in person. There’s a great article below in the Further Reading section of first-hand accounts, please check it out. All this buffer zone law did was to keep people from standing still en masse and therefore block the entrance/exit after you already made it through them to the door and ONLY if there was someone there who was willing to enforce the law and now, that tiny protection is gone.

Final point: anti-death penalty activists are kept quite far away from the people doing the killing. Is a prison not a public property (paid for with tax dollars)?  Why do we some people get to get up close to protest death but others don’t? Why is an executioner’s safety any more important than the safety of a woman seeking healthcare?

Actually, a post-final point: anti-choice activists do not have a history of non-violent protest. By their own words and actions, they are not a non-violent movement. This is not Occupy Wall Street or a hunger strike. This is a movement that has demonstrated that all of the following actions are ethical (and in some cases, necessary): killing doctors, killing nurses, killing office workers, stalking clinic workers (following them to/from home and/or staking out their house) or giving out phone numbers/harassment calling, publishing photographs of clinic workers online and encouraging others to murder and/or harass them, purposefully engaging in counter-intelligence tactics (i.e. sending in spies), publishing photographs of pro-choice counter-protesters for the same purpose. Think about the political issue you feel most passionate about? How far would you go?

Here is a logo from one organization:


Extra Credit:

Call up your nearest women’s health clinic and ask if there’s something you can do to help whether it’s being an escort or helping with fundraising or writing letters to media and elected officials. Do something to support legal access to women’s healthcare. You can find out how to get involved on Planned Parenthood’s action site: http://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/

Further Reading:

12 Horror Stories Show Why Wednesday’s Big Supreme Court Abortion Case Matters: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/01/abortion-horror-stories-supreme-court-massachusetts-mccullen-coakley

An Open Letter to a Protester Outside the Boston Planned Parenthood This Saturday (this is a MUST READ):

Watch the Frontline special, Murder on Abortion Row: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/social-issues/watch-murder-on-abortion-row/

The day after the buffer zone ruling is struck down: http://www.wbur.org/2014/06/27/buffer-zone-abortion-clinics-friday

History of anti-choice violence (from Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-abortion_violence

Stats on anti-choice violence (from Religious Tolerance): http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_viol.htm


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