Supreme Court Throws Up More Abortion Barriers By Knocking Down Buffer Zones

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley speaks to reporters outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, after a court hearing on a state of Massachusetts law setting a 35-foot (10 meter) ... Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley speaks to reporters outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, after a court hearing on a state of Massachusetts law setting a 35-foot (10 meter) protest-free zone outside abortion clinics. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci) MORE LESS
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Jennifer calls late on a Friday, leaving a short, anxious voicemail. She can no longer afford her doctor’s appointment — less than 24 hours away — because she was too sick to work this week and didn’t earn the extra couple hundred dollars she needs to pay for it. Her pregnancy has been making her sick for weeks now and she can’t stand to postpone her appointment, never mind the fact that the cost of the appointment will go up if she waits just one week more.

And now, thanks to a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision this morning, Jennifer will face harassment and judgment as protestors follow her right up to the door of her doctor’s office.

Jennifer needs to get an abortion in Boston.

Even here in Massachusetts, people struggle to pay for and access abortion every day. They are underinsured and unemployed, lose needed wages for hours- or days-long appointments, tap into precious savings, and sell jewelry, books, clothes, and appliances just to get their abortion.

Now, safe access to abortion in Massachusetts is even more difficult. The Court struck down the 2007 Massachusetts buffer-zone law, which had established a 35-foot radius around reproductive health centers in order to protect the privacy and safety of patients and staff.

On top of struggling to pay for abortion, people across Massachusetts will no longer have a safe space through which to enter their clinic without fear of harassment and intimidation.

As a volunteer for the Eastern Massachusetts Abortion (EMA) Fund, I support callers like Jennifer, and also work behind the scenes to break down barriers to abortion access. Like other funds across the country, the EMA Fund works to bridge the gap between what an abortion costs and what each person is able to pay, by providing grants and advocating for policy change.

Jennifer’s story is not unusual. The EMA Fund speaks with hundreds of callers like her each year.

A young woman from Newburyport calls because she was unable to tell her parent, who is physically and emotionally abusive, about her pregnancy for fear of the repercussions, and she couldn’t scrape up enough money herself.

A mother of two from Jamaica Plain had just lost her job and only had enough in savings to cover the next month’s bills. She called the EMA Fund because she couldn’t afford to make the decision she knew would best enable her to take care of herself and her family, and she didn’t have anyone to take care of her kids during the appointment.

A couple from Lowell, who love each other dearly, just wasn’t ready for a baby – but they also couldn’t afford the train tickets down to Boston and staying for the two-day appointment, which also required taking two days off work. The EMA Fund was here to help.

Every story is unique, but each one the same: despite abortion being legal, there are many barriers that stand in the way of people making the best decisions for themselves, even in a state like Massachusetts, where abortion is relatively accessible.

Over 40 years ago, the Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade that abortion should be legal in this country. But since then, state and federal lawmakers have put up many barriers to abortion access, and the problem has only gotten worse in recent years. States passed more abortion restrictions in the past three years (2011-2013) than in the previous decade (2001-2010).

Efforts to expand and protect access to abortion are few and far between. One such law established the Massachusetts buffer zone in 2007. But even that small effort to protect people seeking abortion is now gone, despite the law being an effective and essential tool to protect patients and staff at reproductive health centers.

Working for the EMA Fund, I can tell you firsthand: our callers sacrifice a lot to get an abortion and make the decision that they feel is best for themselves and their families. They don’t need to be harassed, intimidated, and coerced when they finally reach the health center.

The amount of money someone has shouldn’t prohibit them from having an abortion. Not having a car, or not having an extra vacation day, shouldn’t prevent them from having an abortion. And neither should the protesters who consider it a victory to yell and wave signs until they’ve scared a patient away from a clinic.

The Massachusetts state legislature should act immediately to replace Massachusetts’ buffer zone law. Since Roe v. Wade was decided over forty years ago, many barriers to abortion access have been passed, barriers that the EMA Fund and advocates across the country are fighting to break down. The last thing we need is to roll back the clock and allow the buffer zone to be a thing of the past.

Alicia Johnson is the External Relations Team Leader at the Eastern Massachusetts Abortion (EMA) Fund, a volunteer-run nonprofit that helps people living in or traveling to eastern Massachusetts access abortion. She joined the EMA Fund in summer 2012, where she takes regular shifts on the hotline and runs the fundraising and communications programs. She also works at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and graduated from Boston College in 2011, where she studied Linguistics and Women’s and Gender Studies and co-founded and led a student education and advocacy group, BC Students for Sexual Health.

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