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Politics & Government

Pittsburgh's Buffer Zone Still Being Enforced; Abortion Opponents Expect a Court Challenge

“We’re hoping that it will also obliterate the yellow arch that’s out in front of the building that houses Planned Parenthood.”

Helen Cindrich, executive director of People Concerned for the Unborn Child, is referring to the US Supreme Court’s decision Thursday declaring a Massachusetts law that establishes a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics violates protesters’ free speech rights.

The yellow semicircle outside the Planned Parenthood facility in downtown Pittsburgh marks the 15-foot buffer zone established by a 2006 city ordinance.

Kim Evert, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, says it still is to be determined what the Supreme Court ruling means for Pittsburgh.  “But we do believe that our ordinance is narrowly tailored enough and there’s enough difference between ours and the Massachusetts ordinance that ours will stand.”

The Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts law because it wasn’t “narrowly enough tailored” and that a significant portion of the sidewalk was off limits to abortion protesters.

In 2006, the city of Pittsburgh adopted an ordinance that established a 15-foot buffer zone outside the entrances to abortion clinics as well as an 8-foot personal bubble around individuals.   Mary Brown, an abortion opponent from Indiana Township, filed suit against the city and in 2009 U.S. District Judge Nora Berry Fischer ruled the combination of the bubble and the buffer violated protesters First Amendment rights.  However, the 15-foot static buffer has remained in place since.

Planned Parenthoods’s Evert says the buffer zone has been “very helpful.” 

“We rarely have to call for enforcement.  People usually follow it.  Occasionally someone will try to challenge it, and the police have been very responsive.”

But the 15-foot “no speech zone” has not stopped abortion opponents according to Helen Cindrich.  “We manage to get our message across in many cases; it’s just that by this time the yellow line needs to be challenged and we’re willing to do that.”

Evert acknowledges that the city’s ordinance could end up in court again.

“It’s certainly a possibility,” says Evert, “ if it’s necessary we’ll take whatever action we need to to make sure there are protections on the street whether it’s our current buffer zone or whether it needs to be modified if that would be a decision, we would certainly do whatever it takes to make those modifications in the future.”

Helen Cindrich of People Concerned for the Unborn Child expects another court battle over Pittsburgh’s ordinance.  “The case will be challenged; if not by Mary Kay [Brown, who filed suit in 2006], it will be challenged by one of us, one of the pro-lifers around Pittsburgh.”

In the meantime, Kim Evert says city officials have assured her the 15-foot buffer zone will continue to be enforced.