I started volunteering at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts in 2011 and was hired in 2012. When I worked there, I would always have the same routine. Every morning, I would grab a cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts for my fifteen-minute walk. I would talk to a friend on the phone, until I would turn the corner right before the health center. “Well, I need to get off the phone, I’m getting close,” I’d say when I was a little over a football field away. In another minute, I’d be in earshot of the protesters, who carried signs and called out to all who passed by.
Despite knowing I’d have to pass these protesters nearly every day, I felt protected by the 35 feet that the law required between where the protesters would stand and the door of the health center. When I was within this buffer zone, I could still hear everything the protesters said and see their signs, but I felt safer knowing that no one could physically block my entrance or force me to move around them. Once I got inside that painted yellow line, my path to the door was clear, and our friendly security guard would be there to say good morning to me.
The buffer zone protected me as I went to work each day, and, as I see it, maintained a healthy balance between free speech rights and the right to safely access health care.
This sense of safety hasn’t always been the norm for employees and patients of reproductive health care providers in Massachusetts. Prior to the buffer zone law, some protestors would dress up like Boston Police Department officers to deceive patients into providing their contact information. Some protestors would intentionally block the entrance to the door or stand in front of cars entering the garage. There were cases of protestors photographing or throwing literature inside of patients’ or employees’ cars. Most tragically of all, two employees were murdered at neighboring health centers in Brookline in 1994.
Part of my responsibilities as Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts’ Counseling and Referral Supervisor included overseeing the 60 volunteers who staffed our hotline, some of whom had been volunteering for Planned Parenthood since before I was born. I was often reminded by our volunteers of how lucky I was to have only known the health center after the buffer zone law was passed. When I trained new volunteers, many asked if I felt safe at the health center, and I would explain how the buffer zone worked. They were relieved to know that they would have a safe, clear path to the door every day.
Today, the Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts buffer zone law that made me, my coworkers, and the patients feel safe and protected. It is incredibly disheartening to learn that my former coworkers and their patients won’t be protected by the same 35-feet that kept me safe. I trust that the staff at Planned Parenthood will continue to do whatever they can to help protect their patients and provide excellent, non-judgmental care, and encourage you to follow them online (find the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund on Facebook and Twitter) for ways to action to replace the buffer zone law.