On usually two mornings a week, winter or summer, 77-year-old Eleanor McCullen stands beside a yellow line in front of Boston’s Planned Parenthood facility. She holds a knitted baby cap (blue and pink) and a selection of leaflets. When people approach the door, she makes eye contact and smiles, and—if it’s a woman accompanied by a friend—says, “There’s so much help available. Can we talk five minutes?” She tries to engage couples because one of them is probably there for an abortion and needs the other to drive her home. Eleanor has been doing this for decades, but the yellow line first appeared in 2007 to mark off a “safe zone” where people could enter Planned Parenthood unimpeded by pro-lifers. The zone begins 35 feet from the door, meaning sidewalk counselors must wave and shout to get people’s attention. Is this any way to treat a public sidewalk?
Eleanor thought not. Her challenge to the Massachusetts law, McCullen v. Coakley, was heard last week by the U.S. Supreme Court, and observers think the case stands a good chance of winning, overturning buffer-zone laws that were upheld in Hill v. Colorado 14 years ago. The case is being argued as an issue of free speech, not life: Does the state have the right to declare public property off-limits to one particular viewpoint? Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley maintains that the buffer zone is necessary to protect Planned Parenthood clients from violent incidents such as the 1994 attack on a Brookline Planned Parenthood facility that left one staffer dead and two others wounded. Just how a yellow line is supposed to stop a determined gunman is unclear, but employees at the facility claim the 35-foot safety zone has defused a lot of tension.
Violent impulses do show up on the protest line, but not necessarily from pro-life demonstrators. Just last week, a male friend of a woman who just had an abortion allegedly assaulted pro-life demonstrators outside an abortion center in Norman, Okla., with no little or no response from the police. Were the demonstrators making themselves obnoxious? Possibly. Abortion advocates often point to the Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville, Ky., which is under a constant barrage (in their view) from pastors and Bible college students, as an example of what can happen when buffer zones are eliminated.
Meanwhile, Eleanor McCullen stands just behind the yellow line representing what a life is worth. Sometimes weeks go by without her making a single contact. Then a young woman may turn aside and talk with her for a few minutes, after which they go out for coffee and a shopping expedition that involves diapers and baby clothes. Eleanor offers financial assistance and moral support. She claims to have saved more than 80 babies in her years of standing outside the Planned Parenthood door.
Argument, wrote Justice Antonin Scalia, is the front-line means for abortion opponents who have “no option but to persuade women, one by one, not to make that choice.” The elimination of buffer zones will be a victory, but only as long as loyal foot soldiers continue to make their case repeatedly, quietly, and persistently.