By Gintautas Dumcius
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- With 17 days left until the end of the formal legislative calendar, lawmakers unveiled a response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the state's 35-foot buffer zone around reproductive health clinics.
A top Senate lawmaker on Monday filed a bill prohibiting a group of two or more people from blocking the entrance or driveways of the clinics, and allowing for law enforcement to disperse protesters at least 25 feet away from the entrance or driveway for a maximum of eight hours "or until the close of business of the reproductive health facility, whichever is earlier."
Sen. Harriette Chandler, the assistant majority leader and a Worcester Democrat, filed the bill, and the Judiciary Committee scheduled a Wednesday hearing on the legislation.
"We only have a few weeks left in our session," Chandler said. "Actually, it's days rather than weeks we're counting at this point."
Chandler added, "We hope it will meet constitutional muster."
The bill sets up civil and criminal sanctions for individuals who impede or restrict someone trying to enter a reproductive health clinic.
If a person does not comply with the dispersal order, the bill calls for a first offense to carry a fine of not more than $500 or not more than 3 months incarceration in a jail or house of correction.
Under the bill, if an individual tries to physically threaten or intimidate an individual entering or exiting the clinic, the attorney general or private entity such as Planned Parenthood is allowed to bring a civil action.
If the civil action is brought by a private entity, the entity would be able to receive injunctive relief and damages, along with coverage of attorneys' fees.
"The Supreme Court gave us a road map of what this bill should say and we are following that road map with very narrowly tailored new tools for the police and the attorney general," said Marty Walz, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts.
Megan Amundson, executive director of the NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, said in a statement, "It provides additional tools to ensure that all women can access health care free from harassment and intimidation."
"This legislation carefully balances public safety and access with free speech rights. We urge the Legislature to quickly take up this bill and ensure that it passes before the end of the legislative session to protect safe access to clinics," Amundson said.
The Joint Committee on the Judiciary will meet on Wednesday at 10 a.m. in Gardner Auditorium to take general testimony on the Supreme Court decision, and at 3 p.m., it will hold a public hearing on Chandler's bill. An executive session is expected to follow the hearings.
In a 9-0 decision released in June, the Supreme Court voided a 2007 state law that established a 35-foot protest-free zone around clinics that provide abortion services.
Earlier on Monday, before the bill was filed, Massachusetts Citizens for Life, which supports the Supreme Court decision, announced the placement of billboards at the corner of Cambridge and Bowdoin streets, urging lawmakers not to pass new legislation and saying laws against the blocking of driveways and entrances already exist.
"Massachusetts Citizens for Life urges the legislature to let law enforcement apply existing laws before writing any new ones," said Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. "Let's not waste the time of the legislators and the tax money of the citizens to end up before the Supreme Court again."
Walz said law enforcement officials and the attorney general need "additional tools and that is precisely what the Supreme Court pointed out."
Walz, who co-wrote the 2007 law, added, "The Supreme Court invited this response and we have taken the Supreme Court up on the invitation."