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 (Tietjen, Boston Globe, 7/30).
The new law will 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 will be required to stay at least 25 feet away from the clinic's entrance for up to eight hours.
The law also will 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 will be allowed to seek damages through civil action.
The measure also amends 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 will be allowed to try to recover litigation costs and pursue civil penalties for individuals whose constitutional rights have been obstructed (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/24).
Patrick said, "I am incredibly proud to sign legislation that continues Massachusetts leadership in ensuring that women seeking to access reproductive health facilities can do so safely and without harassment, and that the employees of those facilities can arrive at work each day without fear of harm."
Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards said in a statement, "A woman shouldn't be forced to run through an onslaught of screaming, yelling and bullying to access health care." The new law helps "right the wrong done to women by the Supreme Court," she added (Boston Globe, 7/30).
Other States, Cities Mull Changes
In related news, several other states and cities are evaluating their own abortion clinic security laws after the recent Supreme Court decision, Politico reports. Sixteen cities and three states have some type of buffer zone law, according to the National Abortion Federation.
According to Politico, officials in Burlington, Vt., and Madison, Wis., have stopped enforcing their buffer zone laws, and the Portland, Maine, City Council repealed its 39-foot buffer zone earlier this month. Meanwhile, officials in Pittsburgh, several New York counties and New York City are continuing to enforce their buffer zones (Winfield Cunningham, Politico, 7/30).
New York City Law Draws Attention
In the Supreme Court's ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts identified New York City's law -- which makes it illegal to "follow and harass" patients within a 15-foot area around abortion clinics -- as a measure that "could in principle constitute a permissible alternative."
However, concerns remain about the constitutionality of the New York City measure, which also is "not particularly effective," according to Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts President Martha Walz.
Abortion-rights supporters note that the law does not include a designated protest-free zone, which still allows protesters to approach and harass patients. For example, some clinic workers said protesters give women food or water so the women unknowingly breach pre-operation protocols against eating and drinking and have to postpone an abortion (Mueller, New York Times, 7/30).