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SCOTUS ruling on abortion clinics reminds us: Women fair game

Police federal marshals remove anti-abortiprotesters from driveway clinic WichitKansas 1974.  |  Sun-Times library

Police and federal marshals remove anti-abortion protesters from the driveway at a clinic in Wichita, Kansas, in 1974. | Sun-Times library

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Updated: August 1, 2014 6:11AM



If only women got divorced, but not men, then they might, on their way to consult divorce lawyers, have to push through a gantlet of abuse from self-proclaimed advocates of the sanctity of marriage, urging them to cling to their marital vows, no matter how dismal a prospect that might be.

But men also get unhitched, thankfully, so society permits both sexes to breeze through the process unencumbered, or at least unencumbered by the unwelcome intrusion of strangers telling them what to do.

Only a woman can get an abortion, however, so the rules change. Women, even in the United States, even in 2014, represent a second class of citizen who can be harassed to a degree seldom directed toward men.

Don’t get mad at me for pointing it out.

There are many angles to approach this: ethical, social and of course legal, as the U.S. Supreme Court reminded us last week, when it unanimously rejected a Massachusetts law requiring a 35-foot buffer zone between the protesters who gather to confront, howl at and, yes, occasionally “counsel” women trying to enter clinics.

This is, it saddens me to say, the legally correct decision; we can’t have laws handcrafted to stop a certain kind of speech at a certain sort of place (which is why a similar law in Chicago might withstand scrutiny, since it affects all health care facilities, even though nobody is confronting patients heading to get their flu shots, at least not yet). That urge, if indulged, could unravel the First Amendment. A law aimed to prevent the Westboro Baptist Church from showing up at military funerals with their neon “GOD HATES FAGS” signs would end up stopping people from showing up at Bruce Rauner rallies with “RAUNER’S A FRAUD” signs, and we need more, not less, of those.

But law is only one facet, only a rough approximation of our values, a blurry mirror. Law often misses truth. It sure does if you read the SCOTUS ruling, with its fantasy of grandmotherly counselors leading confused teens away from the abortion abattoirs. The truth is, if women entering clinics only faced, in the words of the Pro-Life Action League, “this peaceful ministry consist[ing] of gently reaching out to women,” then such “buffer zone” laws as the one struck down would never have been enacted. Nobody is trying to squelch those chipper young Save the Children canvassers who invade Michigan Avenue every summer. They might annoy, but they don’t threaten the way anti-abortion protesters do routinely.

The implicit threat, conveyed by tone, volume, proximity and past attacks, carries a burden that the law doesn’t see. Like Westboro, they carefully choose a moment of vulnerability. We are so accustomed to these encounters, so inured with their talk of notional babies, we forget that, stripped of dogma, these are groups trying to press their religious beliefs upon the unwilling.

Men would never permit it. Take another process that requires a person to enter a place — say, buying a car. Let’s say my reading of the Bible led me to believe that buying new cars is sin, and I led bands of believers to try to persuade people not to buy cars.

How long do you think society would allow my co-religionists to cluster around the doors of dealerships, displaying huge placards of starving children in Africa and fish killed by pollution and other supposed fallout from the evils of new car ownership?

Answer: not long.

Critics of the Supreme Court ruling point out that the Supreme Court itself uses law to keep protesters far at bay.

“A painted line on the sidewalk is easy to enforce, but the prime objective of the First Amendment is not efficiency,” sniffed Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., secure in the knowledge that he can go about his business without having to pass through a mob, which is not something abortion clinic workers nor their patients can claim.

The powerful always see to themselves. The powerless, aka women, particularly young women entering abortion clinics, need society to have their backs. We allow this abuse to take place because abortion is a grotesque procedure we’d rather not think about. Maybe it’s time we did instead of yielding the field to religious fanatics. We wouldn’t allow it elsewhere. Wouldn’t allow temperance bands to block bar entrances, nor church groups to block football stadium gates, trying to “counsel” fans to go to church instead. We can’t look to law to solve this problem. Instead, we should ask: What can we do to change things? To stop living in a society where it can be sincerely suggested that women lack the ability to make moral choices for themselves? How can we thwart those who deny women their rights?

Email: nsteinberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @NeilSteinberg



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