Is there a First Amendment right to bother strangers in the street? I sure as hell hope not.
By the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court will have decided one of the most contentious topics facing abortion clinics and their patients today: at what point does a protester’s First Amendment rights interfere with a clinic patient’s right to seek medical care without nonconsensual proselytizing? That is the issue in McCullen v. Coakley, and a 35-foot buffer zone surrounding women’s reproductive healthcare facilities in Massachusetts. Mark Rienzi, on behalf of the anti-abortion activists who are challenging the state’s law, argued that being made to stand outside of a buffer zone inhibits his clients’ opportunities to speak with patients, and therefore is a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech.
No. Absolutely not. I say that not as a lawyer – obviously, since I’m not one – but as a person. Nobody has a “First Amendment right” to get in my face and talk to me. Insisting on talking to someone who doesn’t want to be talked to is harassment, plain and simple. I experienced it regularly as a teenager in Paris, and it’s a nightmare.
Women don’t suddenly become public property or public figures because they’re going to an abortion clinic. People in general aren’t obliged to be captive audiences for strangers who want to pester them. We’re all protected by the great and foundational Fuck Off principle.
Eleanor McCullen, the 77-year-old self-proclaimed “sidewalk counselor” and plaintiff in the lawsuit, claims that she is different from the other anti-abortion protesters because she only wants to talk to women who are seeking healthcare.
Fuck off, Eleanor McCullen. The women don’t want to talk to you, so fuck off out of it.
Scalia, of course, is all for Eleanor McCullen.
Her message seemed to resonate with Justice Antonin Scalia, who interrupted when the attorney representing Massachusetts used the word “protesters”:
“I object to you calling these people protesters, which you’ve been doing here during the whole presentation. That is not how they present themselves. They do not say they want to make protests. They say they want to talk quietly to the women who are going into these facilities. Now how does that make them protesters?”
The women who are going into these facilities don’t want to be talked to “quietly” by them. That’s not what they’re there for. I don’t want to be talked to “quietly” by some random pestering stranger who wants to convert me to her point of view when I’m on my way into the grocery store or the post office, so why the hell would women on their way into the abortion clinic want that? It’s harassment. Trying to force them to be talked to is harassment. Fuck off.
The author of the piece, Ashley Gray, is a clinic escort. She describes what these creeps are like.
One group is comprised of Catholic women who are affiliated with a crisis pregnancy center across the street and refer to themselves as “sidewalk counselors,” just like Eleanor McCullen. The characterization they use is intentional, as these women want to distinguish themselves from other, more overtly aggressive groups. These women sometimes carry signs and try to distribute pamphlets, but they prefer a more subtle approach to influencing patients and their companions.
They might begin by knocking on a patient’s car window, an aggressive action in itself, but done with a friendly smile. Then they make their pitch, “We have free sonograms across the street, here is some literature for you on the dangers of abortion, would you like a rosary?”
In my experience, few, if any, patients want to speak with these women. Some patients are polite and say, “No thank you,” while others just ignore them or ask to be left alone. When that happens, the sidewalk counselors step up their game.
“YOUR BABY HAS A HEARTBEAT.”
“THEY PUT YOU ON AN ASSEMBLY LINE IN THERE.”
“THEY TURN YOUR BABY INTO GARBAGE.”
That is harassment. As Gray says, knocking on the damn car window is aggressive. Fuck off.
By this time, however, the patients are actively trying to get away from the women, who nevertheless continue to stalk them for as far as they can, often right up to the clinic doors while trying to tell the patients, “It’s not too late, Mom!” They thrust gestational models of fetuses in the patients’ faces and say, “This is what your baby looks like inside of you.” They try to hand pieces of chocolate to patients, saying, “You must be hungry,” knowing that if a woman ingests food within twenty-four hours before she’s supposed to have anesthesia, her appointment will be successfully sabotaged. In short, the end justifies the means, even when, as is often the case, the patient is afraid or in tears.
It’s disgusting. There are five shits on the court so no doubt this will be declared a First Amendment “right,” but it’s disgusting.
The “sidewalk counselors” may not be your typical anti-choice protesters, who have become known for carrying bloody signs and loud “street preaching,” but they are just as upsetting, and perhaps even more so, because they do it under the disguise of a loving and caring person. They are not certified therapists or counselors. They have no degrees in psychology. Just because they prefer to talk, and not scream, does not make a difference in the impact or invasiveness of their actions on patients and their companions.
These people are using the First Amendment as justification to force patients, against their will, to listen to their evangelizing and to try to prevent them from exercising their right to obtain abortions. Justice Scalia’s comments reflected a profound misunderstanding of what it’s really like in front of abortion clinics, but whether you call them “sidewalk counselors” or “protesters,” the outcome is exactly the same: women feeling threatened, frightened, and harassed for obtaining reproductive medical care.
Harassment is not a god damn free speech right.