New buffer zone law heads to House

BOSTON — With Senate approval of a bill designed to tighten security around abortion clinics now done, the measure moves on to the House, where Rep. Denise Andrews, D-Orange, also testified Wednesday before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

The proposal, given a Senate hearing Wednesday before being approved on a voice vote, is a response to the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down a 2007 Massachusetts law that established protest-free 35-foot “buffer zones” around the entrances of abortion clinics.

The unanimous decision deemed the law a restraint on the free-speech rights of anti-abortion protesters.

The bill would let police disperse groups substantially impeding access to abortion clinics. After a dispersal order is issued in writing, those individuals would have to stay at least 25 feet from the clinic’s entrances for up to eight hours.

The 25-foot boundary would have to be clearly marked and the new regulations must be posted.

The bill also prohibits anyone from intentionally injuring or intimidating — or attempting to injure or intimidate — any individual entering or leaving a facility using force or the threat of force. It would also ban anyone from impeding a vehicle’s access to a facility.

Senate President Therese Murray said the bill “will restore the basic rights that all women are entitled to when it comes to how they take care of their health” while meeting the concerns of the court.

Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said, “This bill takes a responsible approach addressing the concerns of the Court. It carefully balances public safety and access considerations with free speech in mind.”

Senate Majority Leader Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, added, “The Senate believes that a woman’s right to access health care without fear of intimidation is sacred. My colleagues and I believe that the overwhelming majority of Massachusetts citizens believe that, too. This bill would re-establish that closely held belief with a foundation in law.”

Eleanor McCullen, who successfully challenged the old buffer zone law, said she would head back to court if the new bill becomes law. She describes herself as a sidewalk counselor who seeks to talk with women one-on-one outside the clinics to persuade them against seeking an abortion.

“She’s about to go in and destroy her child,” McCullen said at Wednesday’s hearing. “This is a life-changing decision and I am there to say ‘good morning, how can I help you?’”

After the hearing, McCullen said the bill could be used to again block the first amendment rights of those outside the clinics.

The bill’s supporters, including Attorney General Martha Coakley, said the legislation is needed to protect the safety of women entering clinics and the free speech rights of protesters.

Testifying at the same hearing, Coakley said the bill addresses behavior, not speech.

“We should have these tools ready that will be used only when behavior crosses the line,” she said.

Gov. Deval Patrick said he believes the legislation is on solid constitutional footing, but still expects legal challenges.

The bill would also let anyone who believes they are a victim of aggressive protesters to file a civil action in Superior Court seeking injunctive relief, damages, and attorneys’ fees. Any violation of an injunction would constitute a criminal offense.

Supporters say that portion of the bill largely mirrors civil remedies allowed under the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act.

The legislation would also amend the state’s existing civil rights act to allow the attorney general to seek damages on behalf of affected individuals who have been blocked from clinics. The attorney general would also be able to recover litigation costs and seek civil penalties for the interference of constitutional rights.

In her committee testimony Wednesday, Andrews said, “All residents of our Commonwealth deserve dignity and privacy in seeking health care services — free from harassment, intimidation and coercion.”

She added, “If protesters opposed to the practice of medical care were harassing individuals outside Dana Farber trying to coerce cancer patients not to seek treatment, there would be public outrage, and rightfully so.”

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