“time for some self reflection”

Yesterday, my colleague, Professor O’Brien, wrote a moving piece on the practical impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in McCullen v. Coakley, the buffer zone case.

The response is illuminating.

Her piece noted that we essentially have two types of health care for women: the privileged kind where some women can access services without denigration and  the “‘shameful and silencing’ kind” for others.  Well off people don’t have to be harassed, threatened and mocked by protestors for accessing care at clinics like those run by Planned Parenthood.

Harassment is what happens at clinics that provide the full gamut of health care services to women and “The point is Planned Parenthood provides all these services and the buffer zone law made it easier for women to access their full reproductive rights.”

Her critique of the Court’s ruling is that it “said okay to shame, yes to fear, and affirmative to making women’s reproductive health contingent upon these threats. And it said absolutely for women’s healthcare where protesters only greet women who receive healthcare at “those” clinics.”

I assume that the reality of what women have to endure is why Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker said, after the ruling, that he “hopes all interested parties will work together in quickly crafting new legislation that legally protects everyone’s rights.”

The Executive Director of the Massachusetts Federation of Young Republicans, Jeff Semon, took issue with the post.  Writing in the comments section of our blog, he claimed:

This is just hyper partisan non-sense at its worst.
A 9-0 decision against and SCOTUS got it wrong??!!


Time for some self reflection Professor.

Buffer zones don’t prevent murder by the way.

A few responses to the response are in order.

First of all, it’s hard to imagine how Professor O’Brien’s post could be labelled hyper partisan.  Charlie Baker’s campaign said before the decision that “Charlie hopes the current law is upheld.”

The Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, Karyn Polito, voted for the buffer zone law when she was in the Legislature. Baker’s 2010 LG nominee, Richard Tisei, co-sponsored the 2007 bill.  That bill, signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick, expanded an existing buffer and bubble zone signed by Republican Governor Paul Cellucci.

In response to the ruling, former U.S. Senator Scott Brown, arguably the most well-known Republican in the region, issued a statement saying

“I supported the Massachusetts law that created buffer zones around abortion clinics. Despite the Supreme Court’s decision striking down that law, I do not regret my vote.

No matter how you feel about abortion, women should feel safe when they seek out and obtain medical services for themselves.”

Professor O’Brien’s analysis is, like all of our posts, worthy of debate.  But it is simply demagogic to suggest hyper partisanship for a post criticizing the Court’s decision overturning a law that was supported by the GOP’s 2014 and 2010 ticket as well as the most prominent Republican in the area.

Second, a unanimous ruling by the Court should give us all pause before offering a critique. But the Court is not above reproach because its nine members agree.

Unanimity raises the threshold of our critique but shouldn’t be used to deny our ability to take the Court to task. Justice Robert Jackson’s observation about the Court is particularly apt: “We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.”

Further, unanimity is also not always what it seems. In the buffer zone case, the court split 5-4 on an important underlying issue, with a minority willing to strike down all laws restricting abortion protestors.  The majority, including the Chief Justice, is willing to allow other legal remedies to prevent protestors from obstructing access to clinics. Garrett Epps, writing in the Atlantic, called it “skin-deep unanimity.”

And even if one agrees with the first amendment implications of this case,  a unanimous court finding in favor of free speech can still inflict significant harm on the many women who must use the services provided by Planned Parenthood.  They run a gauntlet of protestors, potential for violence, security, and disparagement in the process of accessing health care. Men, and many well off women, do not have to encounter this type of threatening environment for accessing care, reproductive or otherwise.

The Court noted that the buffer zones “compromise petitioners’ ability to initiate the close, personal conversations that they view as essential to ‘sidewalk counseling.'”  Professor O’Brien’s piece helps pull back the layer of what this means to real women in real situations.  And noting that a man walking into a clinic to have a vasectomy or a pharmacy to buy condoms or fill a prescription of Viagra does not have to endure the shaming of  “sidewalk counselors” is another way of pointing out the disparity in access to health care as well as the real life implications of this ruling.

It’s exactly the point Joanna Weiss made in the Globe when she noted that “what’s missing from Thursday’s ruling: a sense of how these protests play out on the ground.”

Finally, Semon’s succinct response is exactly the kind of language that Republicans do not need as they attempt to reach out to women voters and create a more inclusive party.  It acknowledges no practical implications for real women.

Consider also this part of his response: “Time for some self reflection Professor.” This after a piece of analysis detailing a personal experience accessing health care services at the very clinic at the center of the Court case.  It was through her public analysis of her personal self-reflection that Professor O’Brien, a scholar of women, politics, and public policy, detailed the negative impact the Court’s ruling will have on vulnerable women seeking basic health care.

It’s a step above Mark Fisher’s response to the ruling.  In an email to MassLive.com he makes some truly bizarre claims:

The majority of women who have an abortion believe that they did have a choice,” Fisher wrote. “Rather, their boyfriend,  husband, employer, parent or relative forced them to have an abortion.  This ruling means that women will have a better chance to receive the information they need to make informed decisions.” Fisher said the ruling means women “will now be able to make more informed choices.”

See the theme?

“Time for some self reflection . . . ”

Women “will now be able to make more informed choices ”

The common denominator in both Semon’s pithy comment and Fisher’s more lengthy one is condescension.

No serious Republican nominee here could summon Semon’s tone or repeat Fisher’s twisted account of abortion and retain any hope of putting together a winning coalition this fall.  This is exactly why Baker and Brown chose appropriately measured responses to what most reasonable people view as a complex constitutional thicket.  For this unanimous first amendment “victory” has been achieved at the expense of women who might expect that, like men, they should be able to walk into a health care provider without being “counseled” against their will or made in any way to feel disparaged

About Peter Ubertaccio

Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & International Studies. His work focuses on political parties, marketing and institutions. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Professor Ubertaccio and his family live on Cape Cod where he is on the Board of Directors of the OpenCape Corporation and the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation.
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7 Responses to “time for some self reflection”

  1. Jeff Semon says:

    Have I kept you all waiting with bated breathe?

    First, make no mistake about it folks, Professors U’s response here has nothing to do with my comment and everything to do with Prof. O’Brien’s original blog post.

    The fact it was even written is reflective of what I imagine is some very terse feedback they received. They don’t care about my comment. They need to shift blame to the most convenient target to make up for the poor analysis laid out yesterday. I am that target.

    I stand by my comment (which was rather benign). A Supreme Court decision decided by 9 to 0 is one that very few would call “wrong” as Professor O’Brien did.

    If I were to appear on TV and give my political analysis of that decision and say a 9 to 0 decision was wrong, I would be laughed out of the studio.

    And everyone reading this site knows it.

    Prof. O’Brien’s commentary and analysis of this was hyper partisan. It was. Bringing up the despicable actions of John Salvi and others who would murder is not designed to form an intellectual political debate. It is designed to elicit an emotional reaction.

    In the real world this is an emotional issue, for both sides, and I whether or not I agree with professor O’Brien’s isn’t the point. The point is her presence on this site is supposed to provide intelligent political analysis. Insinuating that murder will result from SCOTUS getting this decision wrong (according to her) is not productive and does a disservice to our larger political discourse.

    Second, Prof. U is engaging in a tactic the left often uses, which is to conflate one issue for another.

    My comment was clearly on Prof. O’Brien’s analysis and not the decision itself. By shifting the focus to the decision rather than Professor O’Brien’s analysis, it opens the door to start throwing around well-known Republican names and their statements on the decision. Conflating the issue also opens the door to marginalizing my opinion in order to deflect from the ACTUAL deficiencies in Professor O’Brien’s post.

    Having said all this, I again extend the open invitation to debate ANY of the issues of we face in both the Commonwealth and the country. The reason I enjoy reading this site is it because it tends to dive deeper into the ramifications of various influences across the political spectrum.

    I have never hesitated to compliment the professors when I think they’ve done a good job covering an issue. However, I will absolutely call them out when delve into the realm of promoting Progressive policy.

    Noticeably absent in Professor O’Brien’s post was mention of other buffer zone rulings that have been upheld. Also absent was what might happen from here forward, which the most likely scenario is the legislature will craft a law in line with other upheld statutes.

    You’d be hard pressed to find any intelligent politico say a nine to zero ruling from the Supreme Court is “wrong” despite what Epps writes in the Atlantic. There’s a reason for that.

    Trying to shift the blame to me for calling that out is just weak.

    • Dr. Ed says:

      I will go further — if there is an attorney in this country who litigated more in favor of abortion than Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I’d like to know who it is. And if she rules that the law is unconstitutional, for whatever reason, that is significant.

      Second, a 9-0 decision is significant in and of itself. Look at how many decisions are 5-4 — Roe being one. The Dredd Scott Disaster was 7-2 and even Plessy v. Furgeson was only 7-1 — with a dissent. Yes SCOTUS has been wrong before, but not when they’ve been unanimous…

      Third, there is the issue of “content neutrality” and how pro-life speech was being subjected to particular restrictions which is inherently unConstitutional.

      Fourth, if Planned Parenthood wants exclusive use of 35 feet of sidewalk, then they need to buy the property and pay taxes on it! Otherwise it belongs to everyone.

      Fifth, if one criminal (John Salvi) is grounds to deny civil rights to an entire group of people, then we can deny African Americans their civil rights on the basis of Willie Horton, Gays their civil rights on the basis of the two perps who murdered Jeffery Curley, Muslims their civil rights on the basis of 9-11 — and everyone else on the basis of someone else. We will then have what Justice Jackson referred to as “the unanimity of the graveyard” — and its silence as well.

      Sixth, if this truly was about health care and not abortion, the Commonwealth would already have filed suit against Planned Parenthood for not providing medical care to men. That’s discrimination — and the fact that PP is female only is very clear that this is about abortion-only.

    • Dr. Ed says:

      This is exactly why Baker and Brown chose appropriately measured responses to what most reasonable people view as a complex constitutional thicket.

      Exactly what part of “shall make no law” do you not understand?

      For this unanimous first amendment “victory” has been achieved at the expense of women who might expect that, like men, they should be able to walk into a health care provider without being “counseled” against their will or made in any way to feel disparaged

      Notwithstanding the fact that Planned Parenthood “clinics” do not have to meet the medical (or even fire code) standards of a pizza joint, let alone those of a “medical facility”, it is a very dangerous thing to create a right not to “feel disparaged.”

      The MassPURG petitioners with clippboards make me feel “disparaged” — can I have them arrested? How about Yankees fans — shouldn’t I have the right to walk down the sidewalk without having to see that hateful NY logo?

      Baker & Tisei can pander to the radical feminists but they do so at the risk of loosing their own base. All Marsha Coakley would have to do is say something along the lines of how she believes that the First Amendment protects the speech she most disagrees with and she’d start getting a lot of pro life votes.

  2. Dr. Ed says:


    And sooner or later, Massachusetts taxpayers are going to say to hell with subsidizing the all-leftist faculty of our state’s higher education and to hell with it as well.

  3. Ed Lyons says:

    A lengthy, but carefully-crafted post about the O’Brien-Semon kerfuffle, about partisanship, and why those issues are related to the reasons I like this blog.

    Professor Ubertaccio, (et alii doctores)

    I was very surprised to see a dedicated post calling out Jeff Semon for his brief comments on Professor O’Brien’s essay on buffer zones at abortion clinics. Considering the other awful comments that were appended to Professor O’Brien’s writing, why was Jeff’s the one worthy of this level of condemnation here and on Twitter?

    And what was the offense here? Calling Professor O’Brien’s essay “hyper partisan non-sense” and recommending “time for some self reflection” in light of the 9-0 decision. Let’s analyze this. I will cover the second item first, which is Jeff recommending “self-reflection.”

    In this very post, you said, “Second, a unanimous ruling by the Court should give us all pause before offering a critique.”

    Well, a “pause” after the 9-0 ruling certainly sounds like the “self-reflection” Jeff advocated, no? (Certainly, the tone was different, and tone matters.)

    Of course, you might say that Professor O’Brien, as an intellectual and an accomplished political citizen, did pause after the 9-0 decision. But I think Jeff’s point – and mine – is that there was no evidence of that. I am not saying she needed to say something like, “It was with great regret that I contemplated the decision of Justice Ginsberg, an outstanding judge and a powerful, lifelong advocate for women’s rights…” but there wasn’t even a hint of such contemplation, explaining Jeff’s “pithy” comment – your word for Jeff’s reaction. (And did you know “pithy” is always a compliment? Yes, it means brief, but I think you were better off with “glib.” Unless you were aiming for sarcasm, of course.) Oh – and let me say that I believe she did think about the decision seriously – it was just that the piece didn’t show that at all.

    That brings us to Jeff calling Professor O’Brien’s essay (not her or her belief in legal abortion) “hyper-partisan.” I wholeheartedly agree, though I found only some of it to be nonsense. In fact, I found her essay so partisan, I declined to take up an argument against it, as I indicated in my… pithy comment under that post. 😉

    I am OK with partisanship in general, though I am deeply concerned with hyper-partisanship in America, which we are all capable of, especially when we… get our Irish up. (Note, I am also quite Irish – think of “Lyons Tea”.) To me, that means things like this:

    1. The views of those that disagree are either non-existent, or invalid in all situations.
    2. Normal standards of argumentation, such as: standards of evidence, avoidance of fallacies, concession when required – are abandoned in the service of a black-and-white framing of the issues.
    3. Your opponents – all of them – are lesser citizens, but, more importantly, they are not acting out of principles, but malice or bad information.

    I have no issue at all with Professor O’Brien being an advocate for abortion and related health care services. She could have written a similar piece with some nuance and a more fair characterization of the people on the other side and I would have been happy. I even accept that there is some terrorism in this protest movement. (For the record, I have never had a problem with the buffer zones, though I always believed they wouldn’t withstand ultimate scrutiny.)

    But…. this particular piece passes my hyper-partisan rubric with flying colors. Let’s begin. There is no stated valid reason to protest at Planned Parenthood. There is no valid argument against buffer zones that… would explain the 9-0 decision. There is no free speech right that should be weighed against unfettered access to clinics. There’s no consideration of the issue of a human life, it’s all about controlling and hating women: “Buying condoms, getting the snip, or a prescription for Viagra do not come with this aesthetic.” Women don’t have that aesthetic when buying a female condom or getting a birth control prescription at CVS, either. Why is there no shaming for them there? I can even make a more sophisticated counter argument to the it’s-all-misogyny melody by stating that you might find a protest at a fertility facility where there are no women seeking “healthcare” but there is a giant freezer full of frozen embryos scheduled to be destroyed. Or how about the same people protesting at stem cell laboratories? This movement is primarily about the unborn child, not attacking women. Professor O’Brien might not agree, but that point of view is certainly a valid one. Since she doesn’t acknowledge that, I guess she isn’t part of “most reasonable people” who see this as “as a complex constitutional thicket,” as you just said.

    Lax standards of argumentation? How about the inaccurate characterization of the protesters:

    “And let’s be honest here: most of the protesters are fully aware that they are not going to change a woman’s mind by hurling comments at her on the way in… And the gauntlet outside Planned Parenthood operates to intimidate and shame women.”

    I have met many of these people, as I live near two clinics and cross through the zones often. I sometimes say hello to and chat with the small number of bored, but sincere people camped there – and believe me – they are not there to terrorize women, they really want to stop individual people from having an abortion, and they know persuasion is the way. Also, though it is rare, they actually do get someone to change their mind once in a while. (Believe me – they keep track of these things!) So how are they “fully aware that they are not going to change a woman’s mind”? How can Professor O’Brien speak to their full awareness?

    And her false statistic that half of women have had an abortion? She added a link to… a book review (?) that mentioned that number without any attribution at all. I consulted many sources of information myself – including some pro-abortion organizations – and nobody put it above 25-30 percent. I tried to figure out how to torture the numbers into getting to 50%. I couldn’t get anywhere near there. To leave the reader with the impression that every other woman they know has had an abortion is irresponsible.

    And her opponents? Yes, there are wackos and terrorists among the pro-life crowd. We haven’t had them here in MA in many years (thank God!), but they still exist in the South and West, for sure. Yet these people are an insignificant percentage of pro-life citizens and a small contingent of the people protesting at clinics – and perhaps almost zero up here in Massachusetts here in 2014. But there is no concession in her world for the nice old people who just silently pray outside clinics, or those that speak, but never seriously harass. (She could have read about one described in a column Yvonne Abraham just wrote.) Do they have a right to talk to people about what they see as the civil rights of unborn children? Not for Professor O’Brien. Heck – she doesn’t even think they are really trying to stop abortions on the street – they’re just part of a big terrorist plot.

    So, taking a step back here… why did I write all this?

    One of the reasons I am such a fan of this blog is that it isn’t like Blue Mass Group. Not only is it of high quality and of great relevance to #mapoli, it isn’t so partisan that it turns me off. In fact, I am occasionally convinced to alter my views. You, Professor U, along with Professors Duquette and Cunningham, are tenured sources of good political information in my reading list. Professor O’Brien? She is new, and will be something of an adjunct for a while. (I will make a decision on tenure after I see more of her published work.) She appears to be an intelligent professor who takes her politics quite seriously and brings relevant skills to the table. So I am not writing her off in any way. I bear no malice toward her, and would not have addressed the original essay, but for the escalation of the disagreement with Jeff and in the service of defending his view that the original work was “hyper-partisan nonsense.” I will not abort my plans to continue reading her posts over a single item.

    Did Jeff deserve a post about him? I don’t think so. The tweet (the “you’re doing it wrong” one) seemed like enough. On a related note, I think Professor Duquette recently did the right thing with Jeff on a post about Don Berwick – admonishing him for being too partisan in a longer comment, but he still was constructive about it. In fact, that tactic by Professor Duquette was an example of why I like this blog so much. It felt like… the professor-ly thing to do! :-) And in that case, I thought Jeff was just a little too partisan there, lest anyone think I am unwilling to hand out a yellow card to both teams.

  4. Ed–this response will be shorter than your reflection deserves. First, why Jeff Semon and not other commentators? I find very little value in Ed Cutting’s commentary or in responding to it. It speaks for itself.

    Jeff Semon is a leading Republican in the state with a high ranking position in a party organization. He is an avid reader and comments often and has a public perch. In addition to offering praise when he finds it is warranted (which is always appreciated) he also has an unfortunate habit of leading with some variation of suggesting the smart people with whom he disagrees are ignorant. That’s his prerogative even it always reflects more on him than on any post on which he comments.

    Finally, he, like you, avoids altogether the thrust of Professor O’Brien’s piece, the significant dichotomy in the environment surrounding health care services provided to men and women and between well off women and poor women. A dichotomy that will grow in light of the Court’s ruling. Like Joanna Weiss in the Globe, the piece reflects on what this ruling means for women on the ground. The impulse to suggest that their points of view are “hyper partisan nonsense” needs to be challenged because it is designed to shut down arguments and helps to avoid a conversation on what real women at real health care clinics must really endure.

    For example, while you note that there are well intentioned and good people among the protestors (I completely agree) who are primarily interested in unborn children, there is also “some terrorism.” Well.

    There isn’t any terrorism or protest movement at my health care provider. No one going into my clinic fears for their personal security. No one going into my clinic has a total stranger come up to whisper to them. No one at my clinic makes me feel ashamed for making a personal health care decision. There are no good, faithful, and sincerely motivated people at my clinic who make a point of drawing attention to me, my body, or my health care decisions.

    When I make a personal decision with my doctor, it remains personal. When I make decisions on reproductive health–intensely personal, intimate decisions–no one is there to turn it into a public spectacle.

    No one has ever tried to kill my doctor or intimidate the staff at my clinic for practicing health care.

    That’s an extraordinary disparity. How many protestors, sidewalk counselors, and possible terrorists should I be okay with when accessing health services?

    Professor O’Brien knows that I don’t ever have to consider that question. And because she believes the answer for all people is “none” does that mean she is therefore hyper-partisan? I don’t believe it does. Focusing on those people and how they are likely to be treated as a result of the ruling should open our eyes. Or, we can choose to dismiss them and her by calling an analysis we disagree with nothing more than hyper partisan nonsense.

    She believes the Court is wrong because its ruling will make an already difficult situation for some women much, much worse.

    That is the cost that some people in our society have to pay for the rest of us to practice our rights protected in the First Amendment. Okay, fine. But it’s worth acknowledging that this decision has a particular and significant cost to our fellow citizens.

    And, by the way, I agree with the Court’s majority. I don’t know how to get around the 1st Amendment implications of the buffer zone law as it existed. But I would never suggest that those who see flaws in the ruling based upon conditions on the ground are full of hyper partisan nonsense.

    Finally, Ed, the benefit of your commentary is that you make us think more deeply even as you point out the flaws in our arguments and push back against our points of view. When you find evidence lacking, you note it without the concomitant urge to suggest the writer is willfully ignorant or simply partisan.

    I trust that despite the impending storm, you’ll have a wonderful Independence Day holiday.

  5. PBrQLz I’ll immediately grab your rss as I can not find your e-mail subscription link or e-newsletter service. Do you’ve any? Please let me know in order that I could subscribe. Thanks.

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