Massachusetts may no longer maintain a 35-foot buffer zone around reproductive health facilities, thanks to Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling that determined the policy violates anti-abortion protesters’ free speech rights. So what’s next for the abortion clinics in the state? Women’s health advocates are already preparing to pursue other potential solutions to ensure patients can access health care safely.
The head of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, Marty Walz, can’t continue to enforce a policy that she’s called “the only law that’s ever worked” to maintain a calm atmosphere at her organization’s health clinics. Nonetheless, she says Planned Parenthood will do everything in its power to maintain the safety of patients and staff who often encounter harassment from abortion opponents. It’s just become more of a challenge.
Planned Parenthood immediately began recruiting more clinic escorts to accompany patients past protesters — the organization tweeted on Thursday afternoon that more than 100 people have already signed up — and will start utilizing escorts on more days of the week. Walz has also been in touch with law enforcement officials across the state to make sure they’re prepared to respond to potential issues outside of clinics.
The buffer zone law was struck down in a narrow ruling that suggested there are different ways to curb anti-choice harassment without restricting speech on public sidewalks. So Massachusetts’ political leaders plan to work out some kind of legislative fix that stays in the bounds of the Supreme Court’s decision. “The court has said our statute is not narrowly tailored enough. We’re going to get right back to work and devise ways in which we can make sure women’s rights are protected,” Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who defended the buffer zone law in court, said on Thursday.
Even though Massachusetts can’t have a fixed zone around clinics anymore, the state could enact another type of law targeted at protesters — such as a law that makes it a crime to follow and harass someone within 15 feet of an abortion clinic, a law that gives police more power to break up a crowd gathered in front of clinic, or a law that prevents the obstruction of driveways. And it’s still illegal to obstruct women’s access to a health clinic, thanks to a federal law that was passed in response to clinic blockades in the 1980s and early 1990s. Massachusetts could strengthen those protections by enacting a state law modeled after that federal requirement, which would allow the state to bring criminal charges against people who violate it.
“I think the legislature shares the concern about how to strike a balance between the ability of women to exercise their constitutional rights and the ability of objectors to exercise theirs,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) said in response to the ruling. “We thought the previous bill did that. The Supreme Court obviously disagreed and said there’s a different kind of balance to strike. And we’re going to try to do it before the session ends.”
It’s too early to say what exactly the legislative fix will look like, but top state lawmakers confirmed they’re confident they can figure something out by the end of the July, when the current session concludes.
Massachusetts isn’t the only place that’s scrambling to figure out what to do in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling. Several other cities and states have similar fixed buffer zones outside of abortion clinics, and it’s unclear whether those laws will be allowed to stand. Officials in those areas are reviewing the laws to try to determine whether they meet the justices’ requirements. Ultimately, it won’t be impossible for states to enact policies to protect women from anti-abortion harassment — but they will be required to forgo the method that they’ve determined to be the most effective, and resort to prosecuting people after they’ve already broken the law.