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New Mass. clinic access bill called 'unnecessary'

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BRAINTREE -- In response to a unanimous Supreme Court decision in June striking down a law providing a 35-foot buffer zone around Massachusetts abortion clinics, state lawmakers have proposed a new bill that pro-life advocates say is unnecessary and will again curtail free speech.

Sen. Harriette L. Chandler of Worcester filed "An Act to Promote Public Safety and Protect Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities," July 14, with the support of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, Attorney General Martha Coakley, Gov. Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo.

The proposed bill attempts to meet and satisfy a test applied by the Supreme Court to the overturned law on the time, place, and manner of restrictions that apply to the limiting of free speech for citizens. The 35-foot buffer zone law previously in place did not meet the restrictions according to the court, which meant that it violated free speech for those advocating for the rights of the unborn.

The new bill would give police on hand at abortion facilities the power to disperse a group -- which may be as few as two people -- found to "substantially impede" access to abortion facilities, moving the group back 25 feet from the entrance of the facility, for a maximum of eight hours, and prevent any blocking of vehicle access to the facility.

The bill details incremental penalties for those who fail to comply with officers over multiple incidences including fines as great as $5,000, up to two-and-a-half years of jail-time, and a combination of jail-time and fines. First offenders who "impede a person's access to or departure from a reproductive health care facility with the intent to interfere with that person's ability to provide, support the provision of or obtain services at the reproductive health care facility" face a fine of $1,000 or six months in jail.

Massachusetts Citizens for Life (MCFL) said the new bill is not necessary because other restrictions and laws remain in effect that, if enforced, would still protect people trying to enter abortion clinics.

"There are already laws in place that deal with any of the situations that might come up, like blocking a doorway, blocking a driveway, harassing someone. Those are the main things, but those abortion businesses are protected just the same as any other businesses from people who are misbehaving, so we don't need these laws," MCFL president Anne Fox said.

"This came out at the hearings at the Supreme Court, when they gave testimony on January 15," she said. "Massachusetts had to admit that they have never enforced or attempted to enforce these laws in front of clinics."

Fox said the proposed so-called "dispersal area" bill also creates greater leeway for the police to arrest advocates.

She said the ruling by the Supreme Court should be understood to mean that more strict measures than the original buffer zone law would violate the constitution.

"Nine to zero is nine to zero, and they don't seem to get that," she said.

The Catholic Action League of Massachusetts also disputed Sen. Chandler's claims that the Supreme Court ruling left Massachusetts "in an emergency situation" where those seeking abortions could be subjected to "harassment, intimidation, and violence."

"Senator Chandler's fear mongering about an 'emergency' has no foundation in reality. Since the end of buffer zones on June 26th, Bay State abortion clinics have been the object of constant police vigilance, extensive media coverage, a heightened presence of clinic escorts, and, as before, surveillance by security guards and ubiquitous video cameras. No arrests have been made however, nor credible evidence of pro-life misconduct presented," Catholic Action League executive director C. J. Doyle said in a July 15 statement.

He also said that a public hearing scheduled for July 16 had been announced without enough notice, and criticized Attorney General Martha Coakley for treating Planned Parenthood as a partner of the state on the matter.

"A public hearing on a bill -- the text of which is only now becoming available -- has been scheduled with less than 48 hours' notice," Doyle said. "More disturbingly, the chief law enforcement official in the state, the Attorney General, is treating one side in a public controversy, Planned Parenthood, as a partner and client of the Commonwealth, while viewing peaceful, pro-life citizens as a threat to public safety, who need to be restrained. There is not even the pretense here of fair play. This is an ideological version of raw, special interest politics."

In the buffer zone case, McCullen et Al. v. Coakley, Attorney General of Massachusetts, the Supreme Court held June 26 by a vote of 9-0 that the Massachusetts law violated the First Amendment, because the "buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary" to maintain the state's interest in maintaining public safety near abortion clinics.

The law, enacted in 2007, criminalized pro-life speech within 35 feet of an entrance, exit or driveway of an abortion clinic. It prevented people from approaching women contemplating abortion in order to provide them with support, information and practical assistance -- even in peaceful and quiet circumstances.

Lower courts previously found that people expressing pro-life views had ample alternative avenues of communication with those headed into an abortion clinic, beyond coming within the 35-foot buffer zone, even suggesting that they could use a bullhorn.

Those who brought the case argued that they went to abortion clinics to provide sidewalk counselling, which could not be reasonably conducted at the distance the buffer zone required.

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