Legal protection of access to abortion

Governments sometimes take measures designed to afford legal protection of access to abortion. Such legislation often seeks to guard facilities which provide induced abortion against obstruction, vandalism, picketing, and other actions, or to protect patients and employees of such facilities from threats and harassment (see sidewalk interference).

Another form such legislation sometimes takes is in the creation of a perimeter around a facility, known variously as a "buffer zone", "bubble zone", or "access zone". This area is intended to limit how close to these facilities demonstration by those who oppose abortion can approach. Protests and other displays are restricted to a certain distance from the building, which varies depending upon the law, or are prohibited altogether. Similar zones have also been created to protect the homes of abortion providers and clinic staff.

Bubble zone laws are divided into "fixed" and "floating" categories. Fixed bubble zone laws apply to the static area around the facility itself, and floating laws to objects in transit, such as people or cars.[1]

Laws in AustraliaEdit

Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia,[2] Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Queensland are the states and territories in Australia where buffer zones exist.[3] The Australian Capital Territory has a buffer zone of only 50 m that has to be approved by the ACT health minister.[4][5][6]

Tasmania was the first state or territory to enforce buffer zones. In 2013, the Tasmanian Parliament passed the Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Act which enforces 'access zones' of a radius of 150 metres from premises at which abortions are provided.[7] Behaviour prohibited within access zones includes: besetting, harassing, intimidating, interfering with, threatening, hindering, obstructing or impeding a person; protests in relation to terminations that are able to be seen or heard by a person accessing a clinic; footpath interference; and intentionally recording a person accessing a clinic without their consent.[7] The laws, in particular, the recent regulations passed by the NSW parliament in June 2018, were opposed by "sidewalk counsellors" who are "known to stand outside clinics with the intention of changing the minds of women entering the clinics". [8]

In November 2015, Victoria became the second state to pass legislation to limit protests outside abortion clinics[9] and 150 metre buffer zones are now enforced. Prior to this, in 2005, the Australian Democrats proposed a law to create buffer zones around clinics in Victoria.[10] However, these attempts were unsuccessful as buffer zones were not included in Victoria's Public Health and Wellbeing Act.[11]

Laws in CanadaEdit

Several "buffer zone" laws have been enacted within Canada. Two of the country's provinces and territories have passed laws intended to protect medical facilities that provide induced abortion:

  • British Columbia: 10 metre fixed buffer zone around a doctor's office, 50 metre fixed buffer zone around a hospital or clinic, and 160 metre fixed buffer zone around an abortion provider or clinic worker's home. The Access to Abortion Services Act, enacted in 1995, refers to this area as an "access zone". It prohibits protesting, sidewalk counseling, intimidation of or physical interference with abortion providers or their patients inside of this space. The provisions against protesting and sidewalk counselling were repealed on January 23, 1996, as violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but were both restored in October of the same year.
  • Ontario: 50 metre fixed buffer zone around clinics that perform abortions; variable buffer zones of up to 150 metres granted upon application to hospitals, pharmacies and other health facilities.[12] The Safe Access to Abortion Services Act, 2017 prohibits protesting, sidewalk counseling, intimidation, physical interference, and recording or photographing patients and employees within buffer zones.[13]

Access zone legislation has also been passed at the level of local government in Canada:

  • Calgary, Alberta: fixed buffer zone which requires protesters to remain across the street from a clinic in Kensington. Established in 1991, the injunction also limits the number of pro-life demonstrators who carry signs, or pray. It was first challenged by Michael O'Malley of Campaign Life Coalition in 1997, and again in 2000, but a judge upheld it both times.[14][15][16]
  • Toronto, Ontario: 500 feet fixed buffer zone around doctors' homes, 25 feet (7.6 m) fixed buffer zone around doctors' offices, 60 feet (18 m) fixed buffer zone around two clinics in the Cabbagetown and Scott districts, 30 feet (9.1 m) fixed buffer zone around another clinic, and 10-foot (3.0 m) floating buffer zone around patients and staff. The injunction was granted on August 30, 1994.[17]

Laws in South AfricaEdit

The Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act prohibits anyone from "preventing the lawful termination of a pregnancy" or "obstructing access to a facility for the termination of a pregnancy", imposing a penalty of up to ten years' imprisonment.[18]

Laws in the United StatesEdit

At the federal level in the United States, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), makes it an offense to use intimidation or physical force – such as forming a blockade – in order to prevent a person from entering a facility which provides reproductive healthcare or a place of worship. The law also creates specific penalties for destroying, or causing damage to, either of these types of building.

California, New York, and Washington have each established their own version of FACE.[19] Other states have instituted several different kinds of measures designed to protect clinics, their employees, and patients:[20]

  • 11 states make it illegal to obstruct the entrance to a clinic: California, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington.
  • Six states prohibit making threats toward a clinic's staff or patients: California, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Washington, and Wisconsin. Two states, Maine and Washington, also ban harassment by telephone.
  • Four states ban property damage to a clinic: California, Oregon, New York, and Washington.
  • One state, Maine, has enacted a noise regulation pertaining to activity outside of a clinic, and also made it an offense to intentionally release a substance with an unpleasant odor inside of it.
  • One state, North Carolina, prohibits weapon possession during a demonstration outside of a clinic.

In the February 2003 case, Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that pro-life activists could not be prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a law drafted to counter organized crime, or the Hobbs Act, a law intended to address economic damages caused by extortion.[21] The Court reaffirmed this holding on February 28, 2006 in a unanimous decision, although only eight Justices participated in the ruling, because Samuel Alito had not yet been confirmed.

"Buffer zone" lawsEdit

In the United States, three states have passed "buffer zone" legislation, which can create either a "fixed" area around a medical facility or a "floating" area around patients and staff:[19][20]

  • Colorado: 100 feet fixed and eight feet floating. After being enacted in 1993, the "floating" provision was first challenged in 1995, when three pro-life activists suggested that it violated their right to freedom of speech. Although upheld in a trial court and by the state's appeals court, the Supreme Court of Colorado would not hear the case, so the petitioners took their case against Colorado's floating buffer law to the Supreme Court of the United States. In February 1997, considering its ruling against a floating buffer zone in the case Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of Western New York, the Supreme Court requested that the appeals court of Colorado re-examine their state's law. It was upheld again, and in February 1999, the Supreme Court of Colorado agreed with the holdings of the lower court. In the 2000 case Hill v. Colorado, the "floating" provision was again appealed before the federal Supreme Court, where this time it was upheld, 6-3.[21]
  • Massachusetts: 35 feet fixed buffer zone enacted in 2007.[22] Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley’s Office defended the constitutionality of the statute in the federal court proceedings. In May 2007, Attorney General Coakley testified before the Legislature in support of the passage of the legislation.[23] The buffer zone law was signed by Governor Deval Patrick and took effect on November 13, 2007. Attorney General Coakley successfully defended the statute before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which affirmed the constitutionality of the Commonwealth's buffer zone law on July 8, 2009. The 2007 law changed the 2000 law, which provided for an 18 feet fixed buffer zone and six feet floating buffer zone. Enacted on November 10, 2000, this law was struck down by U.S. district judge Edward Harrington soon afterward because he felt there was an unacceptable discrepancy in the floating buffer zone being applied to pro-life protesters but exempted from clinic workers.[24] The law was restored in August 2001 by a federal appeals court.[25] This law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26, 2014.[26]
  • Montana: 36 feet (11 m) fixed buffer zone and eight feet floating buffer zone.

Several local governments in the United States have, at some time, also passed similar municipal ordinances:

  • Buffalo and Rochester, New York: 15 feet fixed and 15 feet (4.6 m) floating around four clinics in two cities. The buffer zone resulted from an injunction issued by the U.S. district court in response to a federal lawsuit filed against 50 individuals and three pro-life organizations, including Operation Rescue, by three doctors and four clinics. The law was challenged in the 1997 case court case, Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of Western New York, by pro-life activist Paul Schenck. The case came before the Supreme Court, where Justices, in considering Madsen v. Women’s Health Center, ruled 8-1 to uphold the constitutionality of the fixed buffer zone, but not that of a floating buffer zone.[21]
  • Melbourne, Florida: 36 feet fixed buffer zone around a clinic, 300 feet (91 m) floating buffer zone around patients, and 300 feet (91 m) buffer zone around the homes of the clinic's employees. The injunction also regulated noise levels outside of the clinic and prevented demonstrators from displaying images which could be seen from inside. It was upheld in full by the Supreme Court of Florida but came before the federal Supreme Court in Madsen v. Women’s Health Center in 1994. The Court upheld the fixed buffer zone, and the noise regulation around clinics and in residential areas, but rejected the floating buffer zone, residential buffer zone, and prohibition against displaying images.[21][27]
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: 15 feet fixed buffer zone and eight feet floating buffer zone.[19] The statute was approved by the Pittsburgh City Council in December 2005.[28] In 2009 a three judge appeals court panel found in Brown v. Pittsburgh that while either a fixed buffer or a floating buffer alone is constitutional, this combination of buffers is "insufficiently narrowly tailored," and thus unconstitutional.[29]
  • West Palm Beach, Florida: 20 feet buffer zone and noise ordinance approved in September 2005.[19] U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks found the law to be an infringement of the right to free speech on April 11, 2006, and ordered that it be enjoined, but upheld the regulation against excessive noise.[30]
  • Chicago, Illinois: 8 foot floating buffer zone within 50 feet of clinic entrance enacted in November 2009.[31]


Supporters of such laws claim that these zones are necessary to ensure that women have access to abortion. They argue that a buffer zone helps to prevent blockading of a clinic's entrance, to protect the safety of patients and staff, and to ensure that clients do not feel intimidated, distressed, or harassed by the presence of pro-life activists.[1]

Some traditional free speech advocates such as the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association have cautiously sided in favour of narrowly defined "bubble zones" around abortion clinics on the basis that patients have a medical right to privacy when receiving confidential legal medical procedures that is compromised if protesters identify patients for the purpose of publicly shaming or intimidating them.[32][33]

The American Civil Liberties Union helped enact the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act in 1994, which guarantees pedestrian access to clinics, but does not restrict related speech activity. In Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of Western New York, the ACLU filed briefs defending the constitutionality of a court order that prohibited defendants from protesting within 15 feet of clinic driveways and entrances in western New York.[34] The Supreme Court upheld the ACLU's position.

Some pro-choice activists have also argued that anyone convicted of anti-abortion violence should be permanently banned from protesting outside abortion clinics.[35] Professor Jacob M. Appel of New York University has argued that "much as we do not permit convicted pedophiles to teach kindergarten or convicted hijackers to board airplanes, common sense dictates that individuals who have been imprisoned for plotting violence against abortion clinics should never again be permitted anywhere near such facilities.".[35]

Those who oppose the creation of such legislation contend that "bubble zones", by limiting the ability to protest peacefully, represent an infringement upon their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.[21]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Center for Reproductive Rights. (n.d.). Picketing and Harassment. Retrieved December 14, 2006. Archived November 30, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^
  4. ^ [2]
  5. ^ [3]
  6. ^ "Termination of pregnancy legislation".
  7. ^ a b Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Act 2013 (Tas) s 9(1) "[4]."
  8. ^ Visentin, Lisa (8 June 2018). "Abortion clinic 'safe access zones' become law in NSW". The Sydney Morning Herald. Sydney. Retrieved 9 June 2018.
  9. ^ The Guardian "[5]"
  10. ^ Heinrichs, Paul. (August 28, 2005). "Democrats push for clinic law." The Age. Retrieved December 17, 2006.
  11. ^ Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Vic) "[6]."
  12. ^ Rushowy, Kristin (February 1, 2018). "Abortion safe zones are now official in Ontario". Toronto Star. Retrieved February 2, 2018.
  13. ^ "New Law Ensuring Safe Access to Abortion Clinics Now in Effect". Ontario Newsroom. Government of Ontario. February 1, 2018. Retrieved February 2, 2018.
  14. ^ Childbirth by Choice Trust. (June 2006). Abortion in Canada Today: The Situation Province-by-Province. Retrieved December 13, 2006.
  15. ^ Mastromatteo, Mike. (July 2000). "Alberta judge adds to bubble-zone restrictions Archived 2006-11-20 at the Wayback Machine." The Interim. Retrieved December 17, 2006.
  16. ^ "Pro-life challenges Alberta Bubble Zone Law." Retrieved December 17, 2006.
  17. ^ "Human Rights Program: Ontario". Department of Canadian Heritage. Archived from the original on 8 July 2006. Retrieved 13 August 2015.
  18. ^ Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act Archived 2011-09-29 at the Wayback Machine (Act No. 92 of 1996), section 10(1).
  19. ^ a b c d National Abortion Federation. (2006). Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. Retrieved December 13, 2006.
  20. ^ a b Guttmacher Institute. (December 1, 2006). Protecting Access to Clinics. State Policies in Brief. Retrieved December 15, 2006.
  21. ^ a b c d e Hudson, David L. Jr. (2006). Abortion protests & buffer zones Archived 2006-12-08 at the Wayback Machine. First Amendment Center. Retrieved December 13, 2006.
  22. ^ Wangsness, Lisa. (November 14, 2007). "New law expands abortion buffer zone" The Boston Globe. Retrieved November 18, 2007.
  23. ^ Estes, Andrea. (May 17, 2007). "A move to expand buffers at clinics" The Boston Globe. Retrieved September 23, 2009.
  24. ^ Gottlieb, Scott (December 2, 2000). ""Buffer zone" law for abortion clinics declared unconstitutional". BMJ. 321 (7273): 1368. doi:10.1136/bmj.321.7273.1368/e. PMC 1173500.
  25. ^ Pope, Justin. (August 13, 2001). "Massachusetts Abortion Buffer Zone Law Upheld." Associated Press. Retrieved December 14, 2006.
  26. ^
  27. ^ Planned Parenthood. (March 6, 2006). Major U.S. Supreme Court Rulings on Reproductive Health and Rights (1965-2006). Retrieved December 14, 2006.
  28. ^ National Abortion Federation. (January 23, 2006). Reproductive Choice in the States in 2005. Retrieved December 14, 2006.
  29. ^ "Women's Law Project, Buffer Zone Ordinances". Archived from the original on 2011-09-30. Retrieved 2011-07-22.
  30. ^ "Judge says West Palm Beach abortion law violates free speech." (April 18, 2006). ABC Action News. Retrieved December 14, 2006.
  31. ^ Abortion clinic 'bubble' law met by protests, Chicago Tribune
  32. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-11-18. Retrieved 2012-02-11.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  33. ^
  34. ^
  35. ^ a b The Case for an Anti-Abortion Violence Registry