July 24, 2014 — The Massachusetts House on Wednesday voted 116-35 to approve a bill that would bolster security around abortion clinics in the state, AP/MassLive reports.
Lawmakers developed the legislation in response to a recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down the state's "buffer zone" law, which had barred protests within 35 feet of clinic entrances. The measure -- approved by voice vote in the state Senate last week -- now has to be approved in a final vote in both chambers before proceeding to Gov. Deval Patrick (D) for his signature (AP/MassLive, 7/23). Patrick is expected to sign the legislation (Miller, Boston Globe, 7/23).
The measure would give law enforcement personnel the authority to give dispersal orders if two or more protesters deliberately prevent patients or staff members from entering a clinic. Individuals who receive such orders would be required to stay at least 25 feet away from the clinic's entrance for up to eight hours.
The bill also would prohibit protesters from interfering with vehicles approaching or leaving the area, as well as intimidating or harming people accessing the clinic. In addition, victims of such intimidation would be allowed to seek damages through civil action (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/17).
The measure also would amend the state's current civil rights act to permit the state attorney general to pursue damages on behalf of individuals who have been blocked from accessing the clinics. The attorney general would be allowed to try to recover litigation costs and pursue civil penalties for individuals whose constitutional rights have been obstructed (AP/MassLive, 7/23).
According to Reuters, opponents voiced concerns that the bill effectively chills free speech and gives abortion clinics unfair and unequal treatment (Barber, Reuters, 7/23). State Rep. Marc Lombardo (R) said the bill was a "retaliatory bill" that targeted abortion-rights opponents, while state Rep. James Lyons (R) said the measure is merely a reworking of the original buffer zone law and "is on the face of it unconstitutional."
Meanwhile, state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante (D) said the bill was about public safety and not free speech. "There is a long, tragic history on this regard," she said, adding, "At some point in time there has to be a line drawn" (AP/MassLive, 7/23).
In a statement, Megan Amundson, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, said, "The Legislature's swift action will ensure that people can safely access reproductive health care in Massachusetts without fear of violence or intimidation."
Martha Walz, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, added, "There's clear recognition of the public safety concerns faced by the staff and patients at women's reproductive health care centers" (Boston Globe, 7/23).