Justices appear split on clinic buffer zones

The Supreme Court appeared split Wednesday during arguments over whether buffer zones around abortion clinics in Massachusetts violate free speech rights.

The case centers on anti-abortion activists who desire to speak to women as they enter reproductive healthcare clinics in the state.

A 2007 law created a buffer zone around clinics in Massachusetts, mandating that protesters and would-be sidewalk counselors remain 35 feet away from entrances.

Lead plaintiff Eleanor McCullen argues that the no-entry area inhibits her from talking with women seeking to terminate their pregnancies. A part-time prison chaplain, she opposes abortion.

The plaintiffs "are peaceful, non-confrontational, and do not obstruct access,” their brief before the court states.

"Yet, [Massachusetts] prohibits them from entering or standing on large portions of the public sidewalk to proffer leaflets or seek to begin conversations with willing listeners.”

Supporters of the buffer zones say they're essential to giving patients unimpeded access to abortion clinics.

The law was enacted in part because of violence directed at abortion providers in Massachusetts. Two clinic workers were killed outside a facility in 1994, prompting a public outcry.

Questions from the justices Wednesday were split primarily along ideological lines, according to reports, though Obama appointee Elena Kagan appeared skeptical of the zones' width.

"I guess I'm a little bit hung up on why you need so much space," Kagan told the lawyer for Massachusetts, according to Reuters.

The lawyer, Jennifer Grace Miller, replied that the zones leave ample space for interactions on other parts of the sidewalk.

Chief Justice John Roberts reportedly asked no questions.