Faced with a setback after the U.S. Supreme Court last month unanimously struck down its requirement of 35-foot buffer zones around abortion clinics, the state of Massachusetts has moved swiftly to pass a new law that it says will keep the areas around clinics safe while respecting free speech rights.
Governor Deval Patrick signed the Act to Promote Public Safety and Protect Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities on Wednesday, which he said in a statement would aid “Massachusetts leadership in ensuring that women seeking to access reproductive health facilities can do so safely and without harassment, and that the employees of those facilities can arrive at work each day without fear of harm.”
The measure allows law enforcement to “order the immediate dispersal of a gathering that substantially impedes access to or departure from an entrance or a driveway to a reproductive health care facility.” If that gathering is blocking access to a clinic, protesters have to move 25 feet away from the clinic, which is different from the fixed buffer zone Massachusetts had before. It also imposes special fines and penalties on impeding access to a clinic or interfering with a vehicle entering a clinic. Failure to comply with the initial order can lead to newly increased penalties: An injunction against that protester or, if violations are repeated and violent, a fine up to $25,000.
Abortion opponents condemned the law. “This new law chills life-saving speech by threatening massive civil fines for nonviolent acts such as peacefully offering a leaflet of information to passersby on a public sidewalk,” said an attorney for Eleanor McCullen, the Massachusetts clinic protester whose case reached the Supreme Court, in a statement quoted by the National Review.
Martha “Marty” Walz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, said on a call with reporters that protesters at the Boston clinic “have already announced that no matter what the bill is, they’re going to sue.”
State attorney general Martha Coakley added, “We believe it will withstand any constitutional scrutiny moving forward.”