buffer zones

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Clinic Violence Is Violence Against Women

The following is a guest blog post by Tess Koenigsmark. Tess is a recent graduate of the University of Connecticut and currently works for a small but awesome reproductive rights non-profit. Her interests include intersectionality, exploring nature, and spending too much time watching funny cat videos.

Please note that views expressed by guest bloggers represent solely their own. CT NOW believes in open dialogue and multiple perspectives and welcomes (civilly worded) thoughts different from our own, but we do not necessarily endorse any writing done by the author here or elsewhere.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that challenges the legality of a Massachusetts buffer zone law. While there are different types of buffer zones, they generally create a space around the clinic (35 feet in the case of Massachusetts) in which only patients and staff are allowed. Prior to the buffer zone, Massachusetts found that protesters posed not just an inconvenience, but such a serious issue that they prevented women from accessing abortion care and other medical services.

Buffer zones are intended to protect patients at reproductive health clinics from anti-abortion protesters that routinely harass, obstruct, intimidate, and even assault patients attempting to enter clinics. They may not solve every problem, but clinics with any sort of protection are among the lucky ones. Reproductive health clinics have endured arson, bombings, death threats, and even the murders of staff. That is terrorism, plain and simple.

And while these acts are certainly the most heinous, and most newsworthy, the everyday harassment of patients is also a significant hindrance to women seeking medical care. Women already in a vulnerable position are confronted by protesters who scream in their faces, display graphic images of aborted fetuses, shove literature through car windows, record them, and obstruct their entry into the clinic.

Given this state of affairs, many reproductive rights advocates were justifiably furious that mainstream media outlets bought into the characterization of anti-choice protesters as gentle, peaceful people. Eleanor McCullen, the plaintiff in this case, is a harmless-looking grandmother who claims she just wants to speak to the women entering clinics. I don’t know enough about her to determine that her behavior is never harassing, but regardless, McCullen is not representative of the climate outside the average clinic. As the Supreme Courts arguments were taking place, Erin Matson, editor of RH Reality Check, was tweeting anti-choice protester behavior that she personally witnessed as a clinic escort. Below are just a couple of her many tweets:


What was most shocking was how people – mostly women – repeatedly had to share their personal stories to prove that the violence, harassment, and general obstruction of women’s access to healthcare are indeed real. As mainstream news outlets overlooked this side of the story, instead painting clinic protesters as benign grandmothers, stories of harassment poured out onto Twitter and elsewhere. How loud do women have to collectively shout in order to be believed?

While watching the story of this Supreme Court case play out was frustrating for its own reasons, it was even more maddening to have the feeling that I had seen this movie before. For as much as this court case is about the constitutionally protected right to abortion, it is perhaps just as much about violence against women. Debate about the former has, perhaps strategically, clouded any discussion of the latter.

The way this case has played out so far is reminiscent of other forms of violence and harassment faced by women. Women can say, repeatedly, that street harassment restricts their movement and activities, at times creating a legitimate emotional burden. And yet many men will not take their female friends at their word on this subject. It is only when a woman tells them about the time that she was not sure if the hostile, aggressive man in an empty subway car was going to take no for an answer that they scratch their heads and reconsider.

It is the burden of every marginalized group to be denied credibility in talking about their own experiences. It is simply not good enough for women to say, “Yes, this happened to me.” They must expose the raw, gory details whether they would like to or not, almost as a penance for bringing their experiences into the light of the public.

When the media and Supreme Court justices deny the violence that happens at reproductive health clinics, it is no different than when our society dismisses women’s experiences with sexual assault, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. The characters in this case may be different, but the story is still the same.

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