Next week, when the Supreme Court hears a challenge to the state law keeping protesters at a decent distance from abortion clinics, Liam Lowney will be there.
And nobody in that courtroom will have paid a higher price for their seat.
Lowney has this rule. He never talks about his sister Shannon’s death without first telling you who she was in life.
Shannon’s parents, both public school teachers, raised their three children to live lives of service. The middle child, Shannon — 25, musical, tall, with long brown hair and blue eyes — graduated magna cum laude from Boston College with a degree in history. She was about to begin studying social work at Boston University. In college, she had spent time in Ecuador working with poor families. She taught children how to avoid abuse in Lewiston, Maine.
Her job as a receptionist and Spanish translator at Planned Parenthood in Brookline didn’t pay much. She chose to work there because she believed women had a right to affordable health care. She knew clients would be stressed by the time they got to her, so she was always determined to greet them with a smile.
Shannon was the first to arrive in the mornings. For that, some of the antiabortion protesters gathered outside the clinic dubbed her “Public Enemy Number One.”
“She spoke a lot about that,” Liam says. At first, Shannon tried to engage the protesters, explaining that the clinic provided women, especially those of slender means, with all kinds of services besides abortions. “She talked about how frustrated she was, that there was no conversation to be had.”
Shannon’s father worried protesters would vandalize her car.
“Never did we imagine that someone would go in and kill her,” Liam says.
On Dec. 30, 1994, John Salvi walked into the Brookline clinic and shot Shannon dead. Then, at another nearby clinic, he murdered receptionist Lee Ann Nichols.
Thirteen years after Shannon’s death, Liam was on Beacon Hill, testifying at a hearing on a bill that would require protesters to stay 35 feet from the entrance to Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers.
He wasn’t there because he believed the buffer zone would have saved his sister. He’s done with what-ifs. What if Salvi had gotten treatment for his mental illness? What if he hadn’t had such easy access to a gun? What use is wondering?
No, he was there so that her work could continue.
“There are many, many employees at those clinics who, like Shannon, show up every day with the purpose of helping women have access to affordable health care,” says Liam, who runs the state’s Office for Victim Assistance. “They should be able to go to work and not be threatened, and [so should] their clients.”
Before the buffer zone became law, the space outside Planned Parenthood was a much uglier place. Protesters got in the faces of workers and clients, dogging them — sometimes for blocks — until they got to the clinic’s obstructed entrance. It was chaos.
Now, it is a far less tense place — no longer the gauntlet Shannon ran each morning. The buffer zone provides a sensible balance between the rights of protesters to be heard, and the rights of workers and patients to feel safe. It is still a plenty contentious place: Protesters can still reach women outside the buffer zone, and inside, often shouting at them. Their words, and their graphic signs, are still impossible to ignore.
If the Supreme Court strikes down the buffer zone law, designed to protect women seeking something that is still a legal right in this country, we will be back in those awful, ugly days. Other Shannon Lowneys, and the women they serve, will have to fight their way through the vitriol to the clinic door. That cannot happen.
And so Liam Lowney will go to Washington next week to bear witness, because Shannon would want him there.
“I don’t get to do a lot of things for her anymore,” he says.