WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court considered Wednesday whether it is legal for states to set up zones around abortion clinics where pro-life activists aren't allowed to speak against abortion.
The case pits Americans' right to free speech against what some call a woman's right to an abortion, at least getting an abortion without hearing any opposition when entering the clinic.
Massachusetts set up 35-foot bubble zones around the entrances and exits to its abortion clinics in 2007 after a few episodes of violence, including murder of clinic workers and angry confrontations.
Marty Walz, CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, described the scene around some clinics before the 2007 bubble zone law she helped craft went into effect.
"There were large groups of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in our doorway, usually screaming at full volume, not quiet counseling, trying to prevent our patients and staff from coming into the health centers," Walz told reporters assembled outside the court.
Walz said she herself experienced this up close.
"I experienced that firsthand when I was a state legislator and I saw what was happening at the health centers in 2007 under the old law, with someone inches away from my face screaming at me at full volume at the entrance way to the Planned Parenthood health center," she recalled.
Walz said the law keeps clinic-access free and unfettered.
"So that women can obtain healthcare without having to run a gauntlet of screaming, angry, intimidating people," she stated. "No woman should have to do that simply to see her doctor."
But pro-life proponents say the bubble zone law is preventing them from saving unborn babies whose mothers might change their minds about an abortion if they just heard a quiet and gentle word.
That's what pro-life sidewalk counselors like Eleanor McCullen say they can no longer do: quiet counseling that talks women out of abortions.
Attorney Steven Aden, with the Alliance Defending Freedom, has helped McCullen and other plaintiffs suing Massachusetts over the law.
"Mrs. McCullen and others have been greatly hindered in their ministry," Aden told CBN News. "They've had hundreds of saves in the past and that's dwindled to next to nothing. So this is a real world, unconstitutional law that is claiming real lives."
Massachusetts Attorney Gen. Martha Coakley insisted prolife activists still succeed at their mission in Massachusetts.
"Even by the plaintiffs' acknowledgement, they have been successful in doing their counseling," Coakley told reporters outside the court. "They have been successful in reaching people they want to reach. It seems to me that 35 feet (buffer zones) is a perfectly reasonable way to balance what are the interests we're trying to protect."
Opponents say it's not true at all that sidewalk counselors are still accomplishing their mission of saving unborn babies headed for abortion in Massachusetts clinics.
Salem lawyer Philip Moran was the original counsel to McCullen and other plaintiffs such as Jean Zarrella.
"Mrs. Zarella testified without contradiction that before the law, under the old law, she had 100 saves," Moran stated. "Since this law has been passed, she's had zero."
McCullen said despite the picture Planned Parenthood's Walz presented, she (McCullen) and the sidewalk counselors she works with don't harass women, but help them.
She's found that most women don't really want to get an abortion. They just can't see a way out, until someone like her comes along.
"They want to talk to somebody," McCullen stated. "But if I miss them, I have to stop at the line. That's what is infuriating. Just losing one baby is one too many, especially when it's to abortion. You know, one-fourth of our young people are missing."
Those who support the bubble zone law say Americans are used to these kind of buffer zones, like at polling places on Election Day. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has its own huge bubble zone between the court building and the public sidewalk.
Everyone is free to say whatever they want on the sidewalk, but that right ends as soon as they touch the steps and large plaza in front of the Supreme Court.
The court has upheld a bubble zone law in the past, but a number of justices in their questioning Wednesday seemed opposed to this Massachusetts law. The fate of similar buffer zone laws around the country now hangs in the balance.