Contemplating local issues gone national
Here at The Brookline Parent we try not to get too political. Most of the columns we write tend to be about our personal experiences, and we only occasionally mention politics when it has some relevance to raising children. In fact, the few times we have mentioned politics in this column is when we’ve discussed the struggle of raising twin children at the same time one of the parents (i.e., me) is involved in local politics as an elected official. And that mostly has to do with how Nomi has to put the kids to bed while I’m still out at meetings.
But last Thursday, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in the case of McCullen V. Coakley, in which they declared that the law allowing for a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics violates the first amendment. The ruling hit home for me in a few ways, and I felt compelled to write about it. Because the history of that law, and its relevance to me, is actually based in our town.
On December 30, 1994, I actually happened to be in Brookline. At the time, I was still living and working in New York City, but I was on vacation to visit my friends Andrew & Heather, who lived in Brookline at the time, and to see Nomi, as we weren’t yet married and we were living in two different cities. Andrew was at work that Friday morning, and Heather had gone out to run errands. They lived in an apartment on Monmouth Court, and I was pretty much spending the morning hanging out and relaxing.
So I was shocked when Heather returned to the apartment abruptly and quick-stepped to the television set saying the words, “There’s been a shooting at the abortion clinic.” She turned on the TV, and I had the strange experience of watching a local news story play out on a national stage. A hyperlocal story, actually, as one of the clinics where someone had been murdered was literally four blocks away from the apartment. Had Heather been walking directly in front of the clinic on her errands, she could have been shot.
The next year, Nomi and I got married, and our first apartment was on the adjacent block to where the clinic had been. When you know a murder has taken place in a building that is 500 feet from where you are living, well, it makes you thoughtful.
It made Brookline thoughtful too. In 2006, as a Brookline Town Meeting Member, I sat in the auditorium as we debated the town’s “focused residence picketing” bylaw that we ourselves had put into place in 2003 and then renewed in 2004. Typical for a mostly liberal, progressive town such as Brookline, the issue was divided between the question of protecting women’s reproductive rights and the question of protecting free speech rights. The bylaw had been passed to prevent protesters from setting up in front of people’s homes. It was needed because protesters were standing in front of doctors’ homes and yelling at their families. But it also meant that protesters were not allowed to stand in front of the home of the president of Boston University when they wanted to picket against a proposed Level 4 Biolab. The debate pitted Planned Parenthood against the ACLU, and, in the end, Town Meeting voted to make the bylaw permanent.
At the time, I was torn on whether or not we should make this bylaw permanent, but now I understand why it was necessary and why it doesn’t violate free speech at all. The way I see it, free speech ends at the point where harassment begins. Many years ago, a national organization that tries to convert Jews sent their representatives out into Brookline, and I found myself being aggressively missionized while I was waiting to cross the street in Coolidge Corner. I kept walking away from the guy who was following me, and I even enlisted a police officer to help keep the guy from bugging me. Did that mean that the government was tramping on this guy’s first amendment rights? No, because the government wasn’t preventing him from saying whatever he wanted. I, as a private citizen, was asking the police officer to help me with my own rights, the right to be left alone as I waited to cross the street.
My kids are girls; one day they will be women. When that day comes, I want to know that they will be free to determine their own reproductive choices and free from being harassed about their choices from strangers who know nothing of their personal situations. From my perspective, the Supreme Court made a dangerous mistake with their ruling. It will affect people like Aaron Gouveia, who wrote in Time magazine about the time in 2010 when he and his wife came to Brookline to terminate a completely non-viable pregnancy. Gouveia writes about how the protesters very easily got their message across, even with the 35-foot buffer zone in place. Imagine how much more of an ordeal he and his wife would have faced without the buffer zone, at a time they were already dealing with emotional turmoil. On second thought, there is no need to imagine, as we are about to find out.
This ruling will affect all of us who live in Brookline, even those of us who never need to set foot in a clinic, because we are all part of this community. Twenty years ago, a man who considered himself “pro-life” murdered two women in our town because he felt justified in doing so. Today, I am now more afraid than ever that something like this will happen again.
This week’s column is written by Michael A. Burstein.
About this column: The adventures of two Brookline parents and their twin daughters, Muffin and Squeaker. Copyright 2014 by Michael and Nomi Burstein.