Civil Rights on Both Sides: Reproductive Rights and Free Speech in Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of Western New York

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Since the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, abortion has been the subject of passionate debate not only in courtrooms and legislatures, but also on the streets of American cities and towns. Though frequently and sometimes cynically manipulated for political gain, the abortion controversy may be the quintessential example of a dispute in which activists on both sides act out of deep, often immovable moral conviction. To advocates of reproductive choice, the availability of safe, legal abortions is central to women’s ability to control their lives and destinies, and to achieve equality and dignity as human beings. To opponents of abortion, the procedure is antithetical to every human value, a desecration of body and soul that is morally equivalent to murder.

Beginning in the mid–1980s, abortion clinics became the site of picketing and protest. Abortion clinic protest tested the limits of the First Amendment in a society torn between its commitment to protect the constitutional rights of women seeking reproductive health services, and its dedication to freedom of speech and assembly. Schenck v. Pro–Choice Network of Western New York, filed in 1990 and decided by the Court in 1997, was one of many constitutional challenges to injunctions that sought to strike a balance between these competing values. Schenck provides a particularly vivid and revealing glimpse into the world of abortion clinic protest and its impact on American communities. Schenck also provides a classic example of a case in which both parties saw themselves as defending civil rights against attacks potentially fatal—both literally and figuratively—to their respective causes. Both prochoice and pro-life advocates proclaim themselves heirs to the legacy of the civil rights movement, with its courageous stance against injustice and for basic human rights amid a climate of violence and fear.


Abortion, demonstrations, freedom of speech & assembly, Supreme Court of the United States, SCOTUS

Publication Title

Civil Rights Stories

Publication Citation

In CIVIL RIGHTS STORIES (Myriam E. Gilles & Risa L. Goluboff eds., Foundation Press 2008)

Full text not available in Penn Law Legal Scholarship Repository.