Today marks the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, perhaps the most sweeping Supreme Court decision in our nation’s history, which paved the way for legalized abortion for almost any reason during all nine months of pregnancy.
The consequences of this decision are legion: almost 3,300 abortions are performed every day in America, resulting in almost sixty million unborn children that have been killed since Roe. First-rate scientific studies have evidenced that women who undergo abortion have major psychological and emotional trauma that they spend the rest of their lives recovering from, not to mention the potential medical risks which include the heightened possibility of future infertility and a higher likelihood for breast and cervical cancers.
The same mentality that has allowed for this culture of death has now led to sex-selective abortions, physician assisted suicide, and the commodification of human life through various forms of reproductive technologies. Regrettably, the reach of Roe has now extended to another realm of American public life: the ability to exercise our first amendment right to free speech.
Last week the Supreme Court heard arguments over the constitutionality of a 2007 Massachusetts state law that established a buffer zone of thirty-five feet around abortion clinics. Led by pro-life advocate Eleanor McCullen, along with seven other pro-life activists, the law is being challenged as a violation of their right to free speech and to peaceably assemble to pray and speak with women who are considering an abortion. Clocking in at barely five feet and 77 years of age, it’s hard to label McCullen as a threat to abortion advocates, especially given the fact that by all accounts hers is a quiet disposition and kindly presence offering both spiritual and material support for all women entering these clinics, regardless of their decision.
According to advocates of the law, the buffer zone was established to prevent rowdiness and disorder from both pro-life and pro-choice advocates, both of whom had exhibited poor behavior on the sidewalks in Massachusetts. But as this current case illustrates, laws are made to establish and promote principles, not to concern themselves with particulars. As Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, aptly pointed out in a recent op-ed, “This buffer zone was completely unnecessary. The law already protects the right of a person to enter an abortion facility, and any attempt to physically bar individuals from access could result in immediate arrest.”
As a result, the law places pro-life advocates who seek to exercise their constitutional rights to free speech and to peaceably assembly on a public sidewalk at a disadvantage while privileging and protecting the abortion industry. Seemingly both free speech and assembly is protected for all parties—except those hoping to advocate for life.
While it’s clear that such a law is an injustice, pro-life advocates must not lose sight of the ultimate goal at hand. As such, we must never miss an opportunity to condemn violence or abuse that has occurred under the auspices of the pro-life banner, realizing that any such actions jeopardize our pro-life witness. And despite such a grim history of 41 years of legalized abortion, there is reason to be optimistic—beginning with the outcome of this case.
By most accounts, the majority of justices on the court seemed skeptical of the Massachusetts buffer zone law. In covering the case, the New York Times noted that Justice Scalia seemed particularly upset by the facts presented to the Court: “I object to you calling these people protesters, which you’ve been doing here during the whole presentation…That is not how they present themselves. They do not say they want to make protests. They say they want to talk quietly to the women who are going into these facilities. Now how does that make them protesters?”
Even justice Stephen Breyer, typically on the Court’s liberal majority, seemed to agree that the thirty-five feet buffer zone was arbitrary: “the obvious reason … you don’t write these fine statutes is that they won’t work. They have too fine a distinction. The activity is commingled.”
As the nation considers this new case in light of the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we once again have the opportunity to reflect on how this decision and its profound ramifications hold up to our national values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For many of us, the decision to strike down the Massachusetts law as unconstitutional should be obvious. Let’s hope—and pray—that the justices have the courage to see it the same way.