Gov. Patrick Signs Bill to Protect Patients Accessing Abortion Clinics

After a Supreme Court ruling struck down the use of ‘buffer zones’ to separate patients and protesters, the legislature acted swiftly in creating a new law.

Governor Deval Patrick Photo Uploaded By Medill DC on Flickr

Governor Deval Patrick Photo Uploaded By Medill DC on Flickr

A bill to put protections in place for patients visiting abortion clinics and other health facilities throughout the state was signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick Wednesday.

During a meeting at the State House, Patrick signed “An Act to Promote Public Safety and Protect Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities,” one month after the Supreme Court struck down so-called “buffer zones” as unconstitutional.

The bill, passed by the House of Representatives and Senate this week, just days ahead of the end of the current legislative session, gives law enforcement agencies the power to disperse protesters from the entryways of reproductive health facilities, keeping them 25-feet away for eight hours after the order.

The bill also puts teeth into the state’s ability to prosecute individuals who break the new law by bringing the issue to court.

The crafting of the legislation was in direct response to a June Supreme Court ruling that deemed the 35-foot invisible barriers between protesters and patients entering clinics unconstitutional, since sidewalks are typically places where First Amendment rights should be protected.

The ruling made void a state law passed in 2007 meant to diffuse interactions between pro-life advocates and patients or employees going to the facilities.

Earlier this week, after the House and Senate swiftly came to a compromise on the bill, Attorney General Martha Coakley, who was instrumental in crafting the new legislation with pro-choice organizations, state leaders, and health officials, applauded the bill’s passage.

“Women should be able to access reproductive health care free from intimidation and threats, and this bill is a major step toward protecting those rights and protecting public safety around these facilities. I am so thankful to the legislature for their leadership on this issue, and I look forward to the Governor signing this bill into law soon,” she said.

Anti-abortion activists who brought the case to the Supreme Court to get the ban on buffer zones said this isn’t the end of the tug-of-war fight over their right to free speech, and the new rules Patrick plans to sign into law will likely come before the courts once again.

“Sadly, the state’s leaders were willing to sacrifice millions of tax dollars in a failed attempt to defend the 2007 Buffer Zone law. It appears they are willing to spend even more defending this bill that will surely be challenged in the courts,” members of Massachusetts Citizens For Life wrote in a statement this week, after the House and Senate pushed the bill through the State House. “The fight is not over. Massachusetts Citizens For Life is leading the charge to protect the rights of the vulnerable as well as pro-life individuals’ rights to free speech.”

Legislative leaders have argued that the new bill strikes a balance that protects patients while also protecting protesters’ ability to express their opinions outside of clinic doors.

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  • Terraformer

    This law is going to be right back in court within months. They are giving cops the discretion to stop speech for 8 hrs at a clip within 25 ft of the entrance based on a rather nebulous concept of interference. So now we have discretionary no speech zones instead of a statutory one. This isn’t going to end well.

    • Mark Miller

      STOP SPEECH….no, stop lunatics from screaming at woman, MANY OF WHOM are simply seeking health care like a PAP smear. And FYI there are many “discretionary zones” SCOTUS has a 250′ zone at the Supreme court. The RNC and the DNC both have had buffer zones at conventions. POTUS does when he appears in public. Free Speech is not without limits and people have the RIGHT to be free from personal harassment which is exactly what you and your lunatic friends are up to!

    • Michael Gnozzio

      The Court ruling explicitly said that giving police this sort of discretion was okay. Quoting from page 26 of the ruling:

      “The Commonwealth also asserts an interest in prevent­ing congestion in front of abortion clinics. According to
      respondents, even when individuals do not deliberately
      obstruct access to clinics, they can inadvertently do so
      simply by gathering in large numbers. But the Common­wealth could address that problem through more targeted
      means. Some localities, for example, have ordinances that
      require crowds blocking a clinic entrance to disperse when
      ordered to do so by the police, and that forbid the individ­uals to reassemble within a certain distance of the clinic
      for a certain period.”

      • Terraformer

        Two things. First, the dissent in McCullen ripped into and made clear the majority went too far in the dicta re: other state laws, including the CO law that this new MA law is patterned on. While the citing the dissent is hardly in a position of strength in one’s argument, the dissent of a particular case does often times yield information on just how far a decision actually carries.

        That leaves me to the second point. Discretionary laws, and the as applied challenges to them, rely on how the law is enforced. I can see a reasonable interpretation and enforcement of this law standing up to judicial scrutiny but I can also see absurd games and power grabs occurring with enforcement of this law. MA LE has a significant amount of discretion in many areas. While more limited enforcement of this law may be found to be OK, I do not expect MA LE to be cautious in it’s enforcement of these more limited buffer zones. There will be as applied challenges to this law and some will be successful.

        Keep in mind, the cops will take clinic workers words for it when they decide to shut down an area. I find it hard to believe that clinic workers will be cautious in exercising this power.

        Anyhow, maybe I will be proven wrong, but I doubt it. This type of discretion breeds abuse of it as a feature, not a bug, in it’s design.

  • Olivia Richard

    As someone who lives close to the Planned Parenthood on Commonwealth Ave, I am sick and tired of getting accosted by the anti-abortion protesters every time I try to just go get groceries at Star Market!