Two days a week, five hours per day, for the last 14 years, Eleanor McCullen has stood on the sidewalk outside a Boston Planned Parenthood facility trying to persuade mothers not to abort their babies. Those who stand alongside Eleanor describe her as having “a real gift,” “a saint,” and “like Mother Teresa.”
Sidewalk counseling wasn’t always a passion for Eleanor. In the summer of 2000, she had her own St. Paul moment when God knocked her off her horse one day at Mass. Up until then, life had seemed rich and full enough, “but I was getting a little restless,” she said. Feeling convicted to do something greater for the Lord, Eleanor asked her priest for a few suggestions. He told her to go down to Planned Parenthood and pray for the women there. Eleanor did just that, and she’s been serving the Lord and the women of Boston ever since.
But, in 2008, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts created a fixed “buffer zone” around abortion centers. Pro-life counselors were required to keep at least 35 feet away from building entrances, exits, and driveways. The new “buffer zone” statute impacted the way sidewalk counselors interacted with mothers and fathers and others entering and exiting the centers. Instead of approaching with kindness and compassion, Eleanor and the other counselors were forced to shout at the women and men to get their attention, giving off the impression they were there to condemn, not help, the women and men and their unborn babies.
Alliance Defending Freedom gave full support to Allied Attorney Michael DePrimo who, along with two other Allied Attorneys, Mark Rienzi and Philip Moran, worked on behalf of Eleanor to challenge the new “buffer zone” statute.
“The U.S. Supreme Court had never approved of any type of a law even remotely similar to the Massachusetts statute,” DePrimo said, “The court has, for many, many years, said that speech on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide open.” Nevertheless, “the courts have been chipping away at the rights of pro-lifers, making it much more difficult for them to express their messages, even on public sidewalks.”
Litigation against the Massachusetts attorney general went on for eight years, finally reaching the United States Supreme Court in early 2013.
A few months after arguments, nine justices, who rarely agree on anything, ruled unanimously in Eleanor's favor. “Even the most liberal Supreme Court justices ruled that the Massachusetts buffer statute violated the First Amendment,” DePrimo said.
The court’s decision didn’t only impact the abortion center Eleanor faithfully counseled at. Other cities across the country also began repealing similar buffer zone statutes—making it easier for pro-life counselors to do their life-saving work.
“It’s all glory to God,” Eleanor says, “and thank you to our lawyers for persevering.”
Read more of Eleanor’s story in Faith & Justice.
Share this page
McCullen v. Coakley
What's at stake
- The freedom to express your views on public property.
- The freedom to engage in peaceful prayer and speech outside of abortion facilities.
- The freedom to engage in public debate.
For many years, Eleanor McCullen has witnessed to women and men entering the Planned Parenthood abortion facility in Boston, Massachusetts, saving countless lives from abortion. Her success caught the attention of the Commonwealth’s abortion facilities. In 2007, Planned Parenthood successfully lobbied the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to create a statewide 35-foot “buffer zone” around the entrances to abortion facilities. Eleanor and her fellow sidewalk counselors were required to stay outside of that zone, which effectively meant calling out to women entering the abortion facility from the middle of a busy street. For six years, Eleanor had nowhere to stand but in the street, or on the opposite side of the street from Planned Parenthood.
Eleanor filed a lawsuit challenging the Massachusetts law for violating her First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The lower courts rule against her, but Eleanor pushed forward with her case. In 2014, the United States Supreme Court declared that the law violated the First Amendment in a 9-0 victory. The buffer zone was ruled unconstitutional. The law she challenged is similar to laws in other states, where government officials have made their own efforts to silence voices for life. Now, because of Eleanor’s victory, many of those states are also changing their laws and letting sidewalk counselors speak freely again. Eleanor is free again to stand on the sidewalk outside of Planned Parenthood, providing support and empowerment for women to choose life for their unborn children.
Our role in this case
Alliance Defending Freedom provided the funding for the case, and three of the ministry’s allied attorneys represented the peaceful sidewalk counselor Eleanor McCullen in her challenge to the Massachusetts law.