By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- In response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision last week striking down the state's buffer zone around reproductive health clinics, Attorney General Martha Coakley and Gov. Deval Patrick will introduce legislation next week that updates the state's crowd dispersal law, enhances statutes around clear access for driveways, and incorporates the federal Freedom to Access Clinic Entrances Act.
Coakley said the plan is to enhance a number of existing state laws to create protections for women seeking health care access at reproductive clinics.
In a unanimous decision in McCullen v. Coakley, the Supreme Court last Thursday voided the state's seven-year-old law that created a fixed, 35-foot buffer zone outside family planning clinics in Massachusetts, designed to shield women from abortion protestors. Plaintiffs argued the law violated free speech rights of protestors.
"The Supreme Court may not have liked our buffer zone, but they did not lessen our commitment to protecting women's access to reproductive health care in this commonwealth," Coakley said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon announcing the plan.
>>> For video from the press conference, go to: http://www.statehousenews.com/video/14-07-02buffer/ <<<
"And while we believe there is no one single law that can offer the same kind of comprehensive protection that the buffer zone did, we believe we can enhance a number of laws that when combined together will provide safe access to these facilities," she added.
Massachusetts Citizens for Life last week thanked the country's highest court for protecting free speech rights. "This is a victory for all citizens who value their First Amendment rights and for clinic-bound women who might need someone to talk to," said Massachusetts Citizens for Life President Anne Fox.
The group said the ruling "reiterates tradition in this country that the sidewalk is the vehicle for free speech."
The ruling suggested the state failed to prove that less restrictive measures had failed to protect women's access to reproductive health clinics.
Coakley said those drafting legislation are not considering reviving the so-called floating buffer zone - which was used before the 2007 law. It was not particularly effective, and created other problems, she said.
Patrick said he hopes to sign a new law before July 31, the last day of formal legislative sessions.
"I want to assure the citizens of the commonwealth that we will react, and we will react constructively and quickly," Patrick said. "And we hope, very much, working with the Legislature, we will have a fix on my desk before the session ends this summer."
Both Patrick and Coakley said legislative leaders, including Senate President Therese Murray and Speaker Robert DeLeo, are supportive and involved in drafting legislation.
"I want to thank the Attorney General and Governor for their urgency on this important issue and collaboration in finding a legislative solution that will protect the women of Massachusetts and restore access to care. The Senate is reviewing all proposals to determine what action will best address the court's concerns," Murray said in a statement.
After the decision, more than 70 protestors showed up at the Commonwealth Avenue Planned Parenthood last Saturday, Planned Parenthood Massachusetts President Martha Walz said during the press conference. Many of Planned Parenthood's patients did not show up for appointments, she said.
"I've already witnessed the negative effect that the court's ruling has had on our patients and staff," Walz said. "Seeing patients confronted by protestors right outside our front door have brought back memories of my experiences as a state legislator in 2007."
When she was a state representative helping to draft the buffer zone law, she stood outside the Boston Planned Parenthood Health Center in Allston so she could see firsthand the "public safety threats," she said.
"I stood in the doorway of the Planned Parenthood, and I had a protestor inches away from my face screaming at me as loud as he could. And frankly it was terrifying," Walz said. "That protestor was back in our doorway Saturday morning, just the way it was in 2007, scaring our patients and scaring our staff.
"That's the world the Supreme Court brought us back to, one where women seeking health care have to run a gauntlet of harassment; one where women seeking health care are placed in fear," Walz said.
Walz said they are also looking at laws addressing harassment of patients and staff.
Patrick said the decision was a setback for women's reproductive freedom, however, he said he was pleased the court provided a roadmap for the kinds of laws that would survive constitutional challenge. That created the framework for the draft legislation that has been exchanged this week between his office, the attorney general's office and the speaker and senate president, he said.
The state's dispersal law currently allows police to disperse protestors if they are restricting access, Coakley said.
Protestors blocking driveways to clinics is another a concern, particularly outside of Boston, she said.
"We are looking at establishing a standard that would be statewide requiring clear access to these driveways, similar to the ordinances that already exist in Worcester and Springfield," Coakley said.
Those crafting the legislation are also looking at the FACE Act, something the court referenced in its decision. The act makes it a federal crime to commit certain violent, obstructive or threatening behaviors to prevent someone from obtaining or providing reproductive health services.