HELENA — Leaders of an abortion rights group here said they don’t believe a Montana law will be affected by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a Massachusetts law banning protests within a 35-foot buffer zone outside abortion clinics.
Maggie Moran, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Montana, and Martha Stahl, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Montana, said in separate interviews they believe Montana’s eight-foot "floating buffer zones” between protesters and those seeking to enter or leave abortion clinics will remain legal. Each expressed disappointed over the Supreme Court decision.
“The decision does not appear to affect any floating buffer zone,” Moran said. “I feel clear our law is going to be fine.”
But the leader of a Montana anti-abortion group said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling makes Montana’s law ripe for a court challenge.
“It seems to me that our law is vague enough that the Supreme Court decision would affect it or at least give us the opportunity to take it to court to get it overturned,” said Gregg Trude, executive director of the Right to Life of Montana Association.
In a 9-0 decision Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Massachusetts 35-foot buffer-zone law was an unconstitutional violation of protesters’ First Amendment rights.
Montana’s law, passed in 2005, creates the crime of obstructing access to a health care facility. Rep. Robyn Driscoll, D-Billings, now a state senator, sponsored the bill. She could not be reached for comment.
The state law forbids someone from knowingly approaching within eight feet of a person entering or leaving a health care facility “to give the person written or oral information, to display a sign, or to protest, counsel or educate about a health care issue, when the person does not consent to that activity and is within 36 feet of an entrance or exist from the health care facility.”
A person convicted of this crime can be fined up to $100.
Moran said she’s disappointed by the ruling because buffer zones “strike a reasonable balance between the right to free speech and the right to access health care facilities without intimidation and violence.” Buffer zones are not uncommon, she said, citing those that prevent politicking within so many feet of polling places.
“Many anti-choice activists protest peacefully, but we cannot ignore the fact that there are some who are violent and harass women and men entering facilities,” Moran said in a statement. “We have a poignant example of this extreme violence in Kalispell just this past March when a vandal maliciously destroyed Susan Cahill’s clinic. This ruling will simply put women and the professionals who care for them at a greater risk.”
Stahl said, “We’re very disappointed in this. I really think those buffers zones are really are important to protect public safety”
In Montana, Stahl said protesters can’t trespass on the property if the clinic is on private property. They can stand on the edge of the property, but have to maintain the eight-foot zone, she said.
When a clinic is on public property, the eight-foot bubble around the patient or staff has to be maintained, she said.
“Our biggest concern is always for the security and safety of our patients and then the staff,” Stahl said. “I think it’s important that we protect patients and public safety in general and protect people’s ability to make private medical decisions without threats, harassment and judgments.”
Protests are common at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Billings and sometimes occur at the Helena clinic, she said.
Stahl said Massachusetts and New Hampshire are the only states with laws calling for fixed buffer zones, along with a number of municipalities. Montana, Colorado and some other states and municipalities have laws for floating buffer zones, she said.
Meanwhile, Trude said the Right to Life Association of Montana opposed the bill at the Legislature, arguing it would violate people’s freedom of speech. That was the same argument cited by the Supreme Court in overturning the Massachusetts law, he said.
“It surely opens the door for us to take it to federal court,” he said.