Local abortion protesters hailed Thursday's U.S. Supreme Court's ruling banning buffer zones around abortion clinics as a victory for pro-lifers and free speech.
The unanimous decision overturned a Massachusetts law banning protests within 35 feet of reproductive health-care facilities.
Planned Parenthood, a primary target of protesters nationwide, responded with concern about patient intimidation and potential violence.
"Women should be able to make carefully considered, private medical decisions without judgment from strangers and abusive and physically threatening protesters," said Cianti Stewart-Reid, head of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, in a prepared statement. She cited almost 90 percent of providers as having recently reported safety concerns from their patients.
But Marcia Hurley of Sidewalk Advocates for Life said, "We're not about violence. We're about offering help and resources other than abortion."
Her group regularly stands on the sidewalk outside Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia in Virginia Beach handing out pro-life literature and offering advice and counseling on alternatives to those seeking an abortion. She said there was a difference between protesters and "sidewalk counselors."
Though Virginia doesn't have a buffer zone law, Hurley said she was afraid that if the decision had gone the other way, sidewalk counselors like her would end up in jail.
"I was surprised that it was a unanimous decision. I think it's a really good thing for America. I thought the Obama administration was going to pressure the Supreme Court the other way," she said.
Victoria Cobb, head of the conservative Richmond-based Family Foundation, heralded the unanimous verdict as a victory for free speech in general. "It shows the government isn't allowed to create zones where free speech doesn't apply. Public sidewalks are just that, a place where Americans can exchange ideas," she said.
However, Del. Robert C. Marshall, R-Manassas, a longtime proponent of stricter abortion laws in Virginia, wasn't as pleased, describing the decision as "a Pyrrhic victory for right-to-lifers."
"It's a temporary respite," he said. He indicated that he believed the court had given an advisory opinion on what it would uphold in the future. "The court is giving a wink and a nod and telling them how to do it," he added, citing a reference to New York in the decision.
Cecile Richards, head of the national Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a prepared statement, "Every woman should be able to visit her doctor without being harassed or intimidated by threatening protesters. … The Supreme Court has given radical anti-women's health activists a green light to stand between patients and their doctors."
Protesters and prayer groups are an everyday occurrence outside the four clinics operated by Jill Abbey around the state, including the Peninsula Medical Center. Abbey had not heard about the Supreme Court ruling Thursday afternoon, but said, "Some facilities may need the protection of a buffer."
She didn't think the ruling would make a difference at her clinics.
Evan Maraist, president of the College of William and Mary Students for Life, which "sidewalk counsels" outside the clinic several times a semester, said, "We've never had an issue with the buffer zone. We're just there for the women. It's definitely a good win for pro-lifers, and for freedom of speech and the First Amendment."
Abbey also endorsed the protesters' rights. "I do support their right to free speech, though there are lines that sometimes get crossed," she said.
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