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With no buffer, patients pressed at Planned Parenthood

Connie Cronin can spot them a block away.

The North Andover woman has an uncanny sense for which women, among the scores of people walking on Commonwealth Ave. in Brighton, are headed for Planned Parenthood.

"Maybe the Holy Spirit is telling me," she says.

The thin women in pajama pants smoking cigarettes. The woman in the red head scarf flanked by two burly men. The slight woman with reddish hair walking a few paces ahead of a young man.

As soon as she sees her marks, Cronin is off, crossing the street to meet them long before they get to the clinic building. She begs them to reconsider, asks if they need help, keeps her pictures of fetal development ready in a Ziploc bag. Cronin says she has in this way dissuaded some women from getting abortions.


Until Friday, she had to stop making her case at the yellow line marking the buffer zone outside the clinic. But the US Supreme Court struck down that 35-foot zone Thursday, overjoying Cronin and freeing her to plead with people all the way to Planned Parenthood's door.

"Look at the ultrasound and then come out and talk with us, please," she called out as they entered the building.

This is the new way of things at Planned Parenthood. Same as the old way of things, before the Massachusetts Legislature decided something had to be done to protect the rights of the women headed for the clinic. First came the 2000 law that was supposed to give women a six-foot moving zone of protection. That proved completely unworkable, so in 2007, the buffer line went into effect.

The Supreme Court justices unanimously decided that fixed line too sharply curtailed Cronin's free speech rights. But maybe their honors should start doing field trips before they hand down decisions. They would learn a lot if they actually stepped into this fraught corner of our world.


Seeing it for themselves, they might find it as hard as I do to see how much more Cronin and her cause will gain in the three or four seconds it takes to walk from the edge of the buffer zone to Planned Parenthood's door.

She has a right to free speech, but she had plenty of it before Thursday. Even with the 35-foot line, women could still be persuaded, cajoled, intimidated, and harassed; they still had to walk the gantlet of pleaders and yellers.

In their decision, the justices called opponents like Cronin "sidewalk counselors" who seek to "engage in personal, caring, consensual conversations with women about various alternatives."

Nice and sincere as she is, I didn't see much that seemed consensual about her conversations Friday. People couldn't wait to get away from her.

The justices were snowed by plaintiff Eleanor McCullen, the kindly-looking grandmother abortion opponents trotted out to represent their cause. But one person's "personal, caring conversation" is another person's harassment: Theresa Gorey of Andover, out there every Friday with Cronin, might think she's being caring, but in fact she is relentless and aggressive. She pursues women even after they've rebuffed her.

One woman literally ran away from her. Gorey read that as a sign of guilt.

"If you see anger from a woman going by, they've had an abortion," she told me. "They can't forgive themselves."


Her particular brand of caring makes me, a reporter paid to be there, want to self-immolate. Imagine what it's like for a woman who is anxious about a very difficult choice.

In opening the zone to so-called counselors, the court also opened it up to the nut jobs who don't just annoy patients and workers, but terrify them. They're the ones who yell at women, who get up in their faces wherever they can, who dress like guards, who take down license plate numbers, who physically block people from entering the clinic.

Until the Legislature enacts new buffer laws that comply with the Supreme Court ruling, those crazies will be able to get closer to Planned Parenthood than they've been in 14 years.

It's a massive step backward. You don't need the Holy Spirit to tell you that.

More coverage:

No finger-pointing at AG Martha Coakley over ruling

Joanna Weiss: Supreme Court is naive

Justices question Mass. abortion clinic buffer zones

Jeff Jacoby: Buffering out the right to hear

Renée Loth: A zone that should be left alone

Yvonne Abraham: Still speaking up for his sister

Audio: Supreme Court arguments on abortion buffer zone

Archive | 1995: Clinic shooting suspect John Salvi captured

Discuss: What do you think of the ruling?

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at