lawmakers take up bill on abortion clinic buffer zones
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[July 17, 2014]
By Elizabeth Barber
BOSTON (Reuters) -
Massachusetts lawmakers took up consideration on
Wednesday of a bill to limit protests around abortion
clinics after the U.S. Supreme Court last month struck
down an earlier law that kept demonstrators at least 35
feet (9 meters) from clinic entrances.
The new bill would allow police to issue a dispersal order if at
least two demonstrators are found to be blocking patient or staff
access to abortion clinics. Such an order would bar protesters from
coming within 25 feet (7.6 meters) of the clinic's entrance for a
maximum of eight hours.
The proposal went before a joint committee incorporating members of
both chambers of the state legislature as lawmakers rushed to try to
get it to Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, who has said he
supports it, before the end of the legislative session on July 31.
Proponents of the measure told the committee abortion clinics have
faced a renewed wave of protests since the Supreme Court found that
the 2007 law violated protesters' free speech rights under the U.S.
That case concerned people who wanted to protest outside three
Planned Parenthood facilities in Massachusetts that offer abortions
in addition to other women's health services.
"What I experienced in 2007 is happening today," said Martha Walz,
president of the state branch of Planned Parenthood.
Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said police had been called
to respond to multiple incidents since the decision.
"It's lousy that we're back at it again," Evans said.
The legislation would prohibit demonstrators from using "force,
physical act or threat of force" against anyone entering or leaving
an abortion clinic, as well as bar protesters from attempting to
impede a person or vehicle’s access to a clinic.
It would allow for civil action against anyone in violation, similar
to provisions in a 1994 federal law.
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"This bill does not affect speech. It affects behavior," said state
Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democrat who is running for
governor. "These tools will only be used if behavior crosses the
Anti-abortion groups voiced concern that the definition of
harassment is too vague.
"This bill is more punitive than the last law," Anne Fox, president
of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, said in an interview. "It looks
like they're just sassing the Supreme Court."
Eleanor McCullen, the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, said
she was afraid police might interpret her personal conversations
with patients as blocking a clinic.
(Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)
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