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Hanna: Supreme Court Review

The Supreme Court’s term was marked by two significant cases that undoubtedly affect millions of women.

The first of these cases involves a Massachusetts law that created buffer zones around reproductive health clinics. These zones were created to keep anti-abortion protestors at some arms-length to patients, who often were shamed for seeking medical services. Such buffer zones exist across the United States, including in Burlington.

A unanimous Court struck down the law because it prohibited people from engaging in close, personal one-on-one conversations with patients on public sidewalks, usually considered a sacred place for free speech. The Court did not characterize these encounters as protests or intimidation tactics, but merely as counseling.

Of course, patients who encounter such conversations often feel intimidated or harassed, but the Court made clear that states could still outlaw behavior that crossed the line.

The City of Burlington has now suspended enforcement of its buffer zone and will seek to amend the ordinance at an upcoming city council meeting, with the intent of balancing the rights of patients with the rights of protestors.

In the second case, know as “Hobby Lobby,” the Court, in a split decision, ruled that closely-held companies, like family-owned businesses, did not have to cover the costs of contraceptives if they objected to doing so for religious reasons. Here the Court reasoned that a federal law protected such companies from being coerced into acting contrary to their religious beliefs.

Just a few days ago, the Court also exempted Wheaton College, a Christian school, from the same birth control mandate. This ruling thus broadens the Court’s reach beyond closely-held corporations to nonprofits that object to contraceptives. This ruling opens the door for literally thousands of other organizations to declare that they will no longer provide such coverage, shifting the burden of doing so to the government.

Is the Court waging a war on women in these cases? That depends largely on one’s perspective, but from the emails that I’ve received over the last few weeks from Vermonters, it is clear to me that many here are very concerned that the rights of women to access legal and necessary health care is being eroded by these ruling, even if one agrees with the underlying constitutional principles in the decisions.

I share those concerns. And that’s why I think that, as we head into this next election season, we are likely to see even more discussion about the legal status of women, and, hopefully, more women willing to step up into leadership positions to at least mitigate some of the consequences of these rulings.

The late Cheryl Hanna was a professor at Vermont Law School in Royalton.
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