Massachusetts Is Rushing Through Legislation To Fix The Supreme Court’s Ruling On Buffer Zones

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES KRUPA
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES KRUPA

Less than a month after the Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law that maintained 35-foot buffer zones around reproductive health facilities, state lawmakers are rushing through new legislation to ensure that patients will still be able to safely enter clinics. The Massachusetts legislature is advancing the legislative fix “with almost unprecedented speed,” according to New England Public Radio.

The proposed law, which was introduced at the beginning of this week and passed by the Senate on Wednesday, would strengthen criminal penalties for certain disruptive behavior outside of abortion clinics. It would make it illegal for anti-abortion protesters to impede women’s access to a clinic entrance, or interfere with the cars that are coming and going from a clinic. It also empowers law enforcement to disperse groups people who are making it too difficult for patients to enter clinics, allowing cops to require those protesters to stay 25 feet away from the entrance for the next eight hours.

The bill was drafted with the support of Attorney General Martha Coakley (D), Gov. Deval Patrick (D), and Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. Immediately after the high court’s decision at the end of last month, state officials vowed to find a solution for the persistent issue of clinic harassment, something that’s all too common when reproductive health facilities aren’t allowed to maintain fixed buffer zones.

Planned Parenthood officials say they’ve already noticed the atmosphere change outside of their clinics in the three weeks since the buffer zone law was struck down, pointing out that the elimination of that policy has “emboldened the protesters.” And law enforcement agrees with them. Boston Police Commissioner Billy Evans confirmed that anti-abortion protesters have already become more violent since the Supreme Court ruling.

“The old behavior was back, as far as women walking up to the clinic being screamed at in their faces when they were approaching the clinic, when they were leaving the clinic, being dogged when they went down Alcorn Street, which is a side street,” Evans recounted, describing the environment outside of one Planned Parenthood location in Boston.

“A person who objects to abortion has a right to express that view. But a person seeking health care also has the right to feel safe,” the governor pointed out in his testimony to endorse the legislation. He believes the state cannot afford to wait any longer to work out a solution in the absence of the ability to impose buffer zones. The state Senate will take up the measure on Thursday, and the legislature is hoping to send it to the Patrick’s desk before the current session concludes at the end of this month.

Lawmakers are hoping the new legislation will strike the appropriate balance between patient safety and protesters’ First Amendment rights, since the justices determined that buffer zones infringe on abortion opponents’ freedom of speech. However, it’s unlikely to please the individuals who brought down buffer zones. Eleanor McCullen, the lead plaintiff in the recent Supreme Court case, warned that she’ll try to sue again if the state approves this bill.

Not every decision issued by the Supreme Court this term is getting such a rapid legislative fix. In addition to striking buffer zones, the justices also ruled that some for-profit corporations, like Hobby Lobby, can drop contraceptive coverage for their workers on religious grounds. Although national lawmakers have introduced a bill that would reverse that decision, Republicans in Congress blocked it on Wednesday.