Everyone has an opinion about abortion. God knows I do. Out of the more than five hundred columns I've written, a good 30 percent to 40 percent must have been about Roe v. Wade in some way, shape or form. To me, abortion is murder, pure and simple. I do not believe in exceptions for health and incest and rape, which obviously puts me on the farthest right edge of the social battlefield (it's just me and Sarah out here, eating S'mores and warming our hands by the rhetorical fires.)
I am infinitely grateful that I have the opportunity to express my views to a fair-size audience on a regular basis, and am proud of a system that gives me that communicative freedom. For now, at least.
This term, the Supreme Court is going to be looking at whether some other people have the right to express their opinions about abortion. In McCullen v. Coakley, the court will take a look at a Massachusetts statute that forces anti-abortion protesters to stay at least 35 feet away from the entrances to abortion clinics. The law was signed in 2007 and, if violated by an accidental inch, can subject violators to almost three years in prison and hefty fines.
As someone who is hardly a constitutional expert but didn't fall asleep in law school when Professor Dowd was teaching the First Amendment, it seems impossible that a person could be sentenced to hard prison time for refusing to be muzzled. I know all about those time, place and manner restrictions, and I'm down with that whole "don't yell fire in a theater" thing, but to prevent someone from expressing an unpopular opinion and then punishing him when he violates that prohibition with nothing other than speech seems rather, well, fascist.
Of course, since we are talking about the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, perhaps I should replace "fascist" with "totalitarian" since that term also covers despotic regimes from the left as well as the right. Still, even for Massachusetts this seems a bit much.
The purpose behind the statute was to protect women seeking abortions from being intimidated. It has very little to do with protecting their safety, contrary to the allegations of its supporters, since there are already laws on the books that cover trespassing, assault and (in the rare case) murder.
No, this law was designed to intimidate the so-called intimidators, making them feel the full weight of a disapproving government, one that thinks a woman's right to be free from annoyance is more important than something the founding fathers placed front and center at the beginning of the Bill of Rights: the freedom to express our views without fear of reprisal.
A lot of the people who normally argue for wide latitude on the First Amendment find themselves in a bit of a quandary here. It seems that their distaste for the message being conveyed ("don't kill your baby!") trumps their devotion to the general idea that freedom of expression and assembly and even religion are valued and treasured foundations of a civil society.
While this is not strictly a case about abortion, you can bet your bippy (and double down on that bippy) that the litigants before the Supreme Court are treating it as a case about abortion. In fact, it is highly unlikely that this case would have reached the court, or that this statute would have even been enacted, were it not about keeping women safe from the shouts and the shaming.
And my response to that is: so what? There is no constitutional right to be free from annoying images and comments and criticisms (if that were the case I'd print out my emails and file a writ of certiorari with the court tomorrow.) As Jeff Jacoby wrote in his masterful Boston Globe piece this week, quoting George Orwell: "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."
Exactly. I know that a lot of women don't want to hear that they are murderers when approaching a clinic which provides a service that, when successfully performed, results in someone dying. It is understandable that a "mother-(who doesn't want) to-be" would be upset at seeing pictures of dismembered fetuses staring at her on the morning she chooses to have her fetus dismembered. It is probably really annoying to have a little gray haired woman praying the rosary and smiling the most beatific smile in the hopes that you'll change your mind and have that baby.
Just imagine how elderly Jews felt when the Nazis marched through Skokie, Ill., (with the blessing of the ACLU). Were their sensitivities any less important than a woman who wants a D & X?
It's true that some people, including pro-life protesters, can get under people's skin. But that's the point. As long as they aren't carrying any weapon stronger than their tongues, they should be left alone.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Email, email@example.com.
By CHRISTINE M. FLOWERS