On Thursday, the Supreme Court decided to strike down as unconstitutional the 2007 Massachusetts law which mandated a thirty-five foot buffer around medical facilities that offer abortions. Since the decision was handed down, the fallout has been contentious. One article, emblematic of a genre of literature which focuses on radicalism, sees little in the way of fruitful discourse happening outside of clinics:

Who wants to be buttonholed on the sidewalk by “uncomfortable message[s],” usually delivered by nuts? Lecturing strangers on a sidewalk is not a means by which information and opinion are disseminated in our society.

Pro-choice advocates will typically employ the following argumentation: The women who approach the clinic have a right to the services provided there. Furthermore, they approach with the express purpose of availing themselves of these services. Thus, they’re entitled to expedient passage into the clinic. Any attempt to dissuade the woman is consequently seen as harassment.

Most pro-life petitioners and protestors contest the two premises. Working within the current legal framework (that is, bracketing the question of whether one can have a right to an abortion), one must assess whether it is within the gamut of free speech to attempt to dissuade a woman approaching the facility. More specifically, does the legal right to procure an abortion essentially free one from having to abide the alternatives proffered by pro-life protestors and petitioners at the last minute?

Pro-life advocates observe that most women, as a rule, do not want an abortion with undeviating certainty. It is not a right that many relish in exercising. In observing this reticence, pro-life advocates attempt to offer alternatives that address the underlying problems and anxieties. Pro-life protestors and petitioners exercise free speech as a way to keep the question open before an irreversible decision is made. Sidewalk counselors typically make a final appeal to the free “choice” of the women who approach the clinic. When circumstances can impinge upon the freedom of a woman, leaving her to feel trapped and without recourse, the sidewalk counselor speaks to her freedom. In a question that has become so clouded by equivocation, the counselor proposes a more sane vision of freedom, which attempts to offer substantive options claiming to promote integral happiness, and not a purely volitional positivism subject to an ideological progressive mythos.

In so doing, pro-life advocates make a claim to speak to the deeper desires of the woman. While this claim may sound like occult mumbo-jumbo to pro-choice advocates, it needn’t. Most sidewalk counselors offer the women options, avenues that prove less traumatic for the health of woman (both physical and psychological) and child. Most pro-life advocacy operates at this level, with reasoned attempts to introduce alternatives for the good of the woman and child. Sidewalk counselors are not out to get “baby-saved notches” on their belts or to make women feel intimidated or harassed as they make their reproductive choice, rather they are attempting to be solicitous for the woman’s happiness.

And so, with this goal in mind, pro-life advocacy has to take into account the nature of its rhetoric and the custody of its image. Without a clear enunciation of these principles (and perhaps even with them), those in the public square will continue to think of pro-life work as sectarian and violent, only serving to further marginalize the discourse. 

More on: Abortion, Buffer

Articles by Gregory Pine, O.P.

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