WASHINGTON — By handing a limited victory to the anti-abortion movement, the Supreme Court has confirmed its ambivalence toward one of America's most divisive social issues.
Abortion remains a constitutionally protected right, and nothing in yesterday's rulings takes that away. But the court also showed, as it has already done in recent years, that there are limits to that right.
The court upheld, 6 to 3, a law establishing a "fixed buffer zone" of 15 feet around the entrance to an abortion clinic that limits protesters' access to people going to the building. But it struck down, 8 to 1, a New York judge's order establishing a "floating buffer zone" around the patients and staffers themselves.
In the floating buffer case, when the right to free speech clashed with the right to abortion, free speech won. In the fixed buffer case, the court ruled that the right to free speech was not unduly burdened. This willingness to protect abortion only so far reflects a broader public consensus on abortion, analysts say.
"Americans are ambivalent about abortion, and the court is mirroring this," says Paul Rothstein, a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
Jim Henderson, a lawyer representing the American Center for Law and Justice, which opposes abortion rights, agrees that the court represents a "microcosm" of the public's stand on abortion.
In the majority ruling striking down the floating buffer zones, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote: "The floating buffer zones prevent defendants - except for two sidewalk counselors while they are tolerated by the targeted individual - from communicating a message from a normal conservational distance or handing leaflets to people entering or leaving the clinics who are walking on the public sidewalks."
Mr. Rothstein cautions against reading too much into the rulings about how the court will vote in the future on other abortion cases. "It's a free speech case, and this court feels strongly about free speech," he says. "It would be a mistake to read too much into this about abortion rights. But it does show they won't be too protective."
Abortion-rights advocates were disturbed by the ruling striking down the floating buffer zone. "On the heels of recent clinic violence and bombings in Atlanta, Oklahoma, and [Tuesday] night's arson at a Virginia clinic, it is clear that women exercising their right to choose need protection from those opposing abortion," the Washington-based National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) said in a statement.
NARAL says women at the abortion clinics in question, located in Buffalo and Rochester, were systematically harassed, leading the judge to impose the special floating buffer zone.
The court's mixed ruling means that judges will continue to struggle with how to implement the federal statute known as the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances, which protects people's ability to enter clinics without harassment. The anti-abortion American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) will continue to fight other cases involving floating buffer zones.
Looking at the big picture, Mr. Henderson of the ACLJ sees protecting the free speech of clinic protesters as an important step in the battle to abolish the right to abortion enshrined in the Supreme Court's 1973 ruling Roe v. Wade. "We cannot possibly hope to see an end to Roe v. Wade if abortion is a subject that cannot be spoken about in public," he says.
Abortion rights advocates say that, even with the law limiting protesters' access to people entering clinics, abortion foes have plenty of opportunity to make their views known.
In another decision Wednesday, the court ruled that passengers can be asked by police during a routine traffic stop to leave the vehicle. The 7 to 2 ruling broadens police powers during traffic stops.