Jun 27, 2014

Local pro-lifers celebrate U.S. Supreme Court buffer-zone decision



(Iobserve file photos/Carolee McGrath)

By Carolee McGrath

SPRINGFIELD – Dr. Cyril Shea doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would pick a fight.

In fact, the retired orthopedic surgeon spent his career trying to help people heal. But as a pro-lifer praying in front of Planned Parenthood on Main Street in Springfield, some viewed his peaceful presence as a threat. And for the past seven years, Dr. Shea and other pro-lifers have been forced to keep out of what was known as a buffer zone, a 35-foot semi-circle around the entrance to the parking lot of the clinic that is marked with a painted line.

But yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the buffer zone, declaring the law violates First Amendment rights.

“We’re elated, very much so. It was a wonderful victory,” said Dr. Shea, one of the original plaintiffs in McCullen v. Coakley. The court’s unanimous decision overturned an appellate court’s earlier decision that upheld the buffer zone law.

“We have the right to be out there peacefully,” continued Dr. Shea. “There’s never been an incident where we have ever been violent. There have been times where people have tried to denigrate us and they have been in our face.”

The Massachusetts legislature passed the buffer zone law in 2007 to prevent violent demonstrations or protests in front of abortion clinics. But employees of the abortion clinic were exempt from the law and were able to freely pass through the buffer zone.

“It was a good feeling being there today. I felt like now we’re able to do what we’re supposed to be able to do, to help these women, to give them literature so that they have the facts before they go in there,” said Don, a local pro-life advocate who prays in front of Planned Parenthood a few times a week. He did not want to use his last name because he said he’s been harassed and threatened in the past.

“Our number one thing is to help the mother and baby and give them the literature that they don’t get in Planned Parenthood and find out what their problems are,” said Don. “We can give them resources to help. They can take it and at least they have it.”

Attorney Michael Deprimo, who spent many years working for the American Family Association, defending the rights of pro-life groups, filed the original suit on behalf of the plaintiffs in January 2008.

“I called the folks at Massachusetts Citizens for Life. I told them I wanted to challenge the law,” said Deprimo. “These are folks who are gentle, peaceful, and knowledgeable. They attempt to gently persuade women considering an abortion and to offer reasonable alternatives.”

Deprimo says the court’s decision will have a big impact across the country. He is currently the lead attorney fighting against the buffer zone ordinance in Burlington,Vt.

“Portland, Maine passed a buffer zone law. New Hampshire passed a buffer zone law. All of those are going to fall as a result of the McCullen decision. This is actually far reaching. It brings into doubt larger buffer zones and also smaller bubble zones.” Deprimo said.

Seventy-seven-year-old Eleanor McCullen, who attends St. Ignatius Church at Boston College, was the lead plaintiff on the case.

“A writer for the New York Times said Eleanor McCullen is the new face of the pro-life movement: grandmotherly and kind,” said Deprimo.