‘A person who objects to abortion has a right to express that view’, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick acknowledged after a unanimous Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts Commonwealth’s 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics. ‘But a person seeking healthcare also has the right to feel safe.’ Not exactly. People seeking healthcare—in this case, women seeking access to abortion clinics—have a right to be safe, regardless of how they feel. In a relatively free society, laws are supposed to govern and respond to conduct, not feelings, or thoughts and ideas.
In other words, my subjective, emotional response to your language or behaviour, however disconcerting, should not be the business of law. The power to protect our emotional wellbeing is the power to regulate it, arbitrarily. We’ll be protected or persecuted by regulation depending on the biases of people in power.
Freedom of speech and conscience depend on a laissez faire approach to ‘feelings’, but in progressive circles, freedom of speech and conscience are sometimes subordinate to recently constructed ‘rights’ to ‘feel’ safe, or merely respected and un-offended. Campus speech and harassment codes testify to the increasing pre-eminence of these ‘rights’, and so, to some extent, does the debate over abortion-clinic buffer zones.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts defended the recently invalidated buffer zone as a public-safety measure, with only an incidental, unintended effect on anti-abortion speech. It was, the Commonwealth asserted, not an outright ban but a reasonable time, place and manner restriction on speech, which courts have long considered constitutional. The history of the buffer zone lent credence to this defence. It was a response to fatal attacks on two Boston-area clinics in the mid-1990s, suffered during a wave of murderous assaults on abortion providers.
But violence against clinics and providers has abated since then. These days, the anti-abortion movement is focused on political combat, lobbying with some success for laws shutting down abortion clinics and restricting individual reproductive rights. Still, pro-choice activists and clinic workers were traumatised, understandably, by the violence of the 1990s. So while anti-abortion violence is in the past, fear of violence is ever present. It is, however, increasingly subjective and liable to be sparked by non-threatening, if extremely annoying, peaceful protests. Buffer-zone advocates strongly believe that the zones are essential public-safety measures, but when they talk about public safety, they’re talking about feeling as well as being safe.