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Abortion-Rights Supporters Look to New Efforts To Protect Clinic Access

June 27, 2014 — Abortion-rights supporters pledged to find alternative ways to ensure women's safe access to abortion services after the Supreme Court's ruling on Thursday that struck down a Massachusetts "buffer zone" law, The Hill reports (Al-Faruque, The Hill, 6/26).

The Massachusetts law, enacted in 2007, only permitted people to enter a 35-foot zone around abortion clinics to access the facility itself or reach another destination. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in Thursday's majority opinion that "buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve [Massachusetts'] asserted interests."

Roberts said the only way for the state to meet the requirement that free-speech restrictions be "narrowly tailored" would be to "demonstrate that alternative measures that burden substantially less speech would fail to achieve the government's interests, not simply that the chosen route is easier" (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/26).

Other states and municipalities -- such as Colorado; Chicago, Ill.; and Portland, Maine -- have similar buffer zone laws (Novack, National Journal, 6/26).

Mass. Weighs Options

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) said Thursday that she had spoken with Gov. Deval Patrick (D) and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh about how the state can protect women's access to abortion services in light of the ruling.

Coakley said that the state would work with law enforcement and seek court injunctions or other actions against protesters who threaten patients' safe access to abortion clinics. Her office is reviewing the Supreme Court ruling to determine what strategies are permissible (Villacorta, Politico Pro, 6/26).

"We ... vowed to make sure that we will continue here in Massachusetts to provide for the protections the decision still leaves and ... to work with our legislatures and others to find what other tools will be available to us moving forward," said Coakley, who is also running for governor.

Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts CEO Marty Walz echoed Coakley's statements, adding that the clinic would use additional escorts to help patients and employees enter its clinics.

Separately, Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) urged the state to quickly write new laws protecting women's abortion access that comply with the Supreme Court's ruling. "While the Supreme Court ... overturned this large fixed buffer zone in Massachusetts, it's important to note it left the opening for Massachusetts to re-write its laws," they said (The Hill, 6/26).

White House Voices Support for 'Buffer Zone' Laws, Abortion Access

White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Thursday said the White House believes that the Massachusetts buffer zone law was a "commonsense" way to balance abortion access and protesters' freedom of speech. In the wake of the ruling, the administration remains committed to ensuring safe abortion access, he said.

Earnest added that the administration is pleased that the high court "recognized the possibility of alternative approaches, such as the federal law (PL 103-259) protecting a woman's right to access reproductive health clinics." He said that the White House would support Massachusetts' efforts to enact new legislation in compliance with the high court's "very narrow concerns" (Kenen, Politico Pro, 6/26).