Last week, student activists against sexual assault got some exciting news: The president announced that he was forming a task force to tackle the epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses. “An estimated one in five women is sexually assaulted in college, and that’s totally unacceptable,” Obama said in his weekly address. “We’re going to do help schools do a better job of preventing and responding to sexual assault on their campuses, because college should be a place where young people feel secure and confident.” Obama gave the task force ninety days to come up with an “action plan” for combating campus rape.
In an essay published in the New York Times twenty years ago, the Barnard English professor and literary critic Mary Gordon observed that a “certain kind” of woman can effortlessly recollect the circumstances of her life when she first read Middlemarch, much as “Americans are all supposed to know what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was shot.”
Outside Planned Parenthood’s clinic in downtown Boston, a painted yellow line swoops across the sidewalk and into the well-trafficked street, marking a 35-foot half-circle around the entrance. Most days, anti-abortion demonstrators gather on the edge of the line, holding signs and rosaries, and clutching bundles of pamphlets. As women approach the half-circle, the demonstrators spring into action. The goal is getting the women to pause and talk to them before they cross into the “buffer zone” on the other side of the line, which Massachusetts law declares a protest-free space.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about the constitutionality of these buffer zones tomorrow, in McCullen v. Coakley. The arguments won’t tackle the polemical question of whether abortion should be available; instead, the justices will be asked to consider whether the buffer zones violate anti-abortion demonstrators’ First Amendment rights.