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State Senate passes abortion clinic buffer zone bill

An abortion protester held a sign and a rosary as he stood on the former buffer zone line in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston.

Dominick Reuter /REUTERS File

An abortion protester held a sign and a rosary as he stood on the former buffer zone line in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston.

Heeding a call from the governor to act quickly, state senators passed a bill Wednesday that would set new rules for protesting at reproductive health clinics, despite antiabortion activists’ repeated urging that they reconsider.

The Senate passage came just two hours after a committee voted to move the legislation to the full chamber. It will now go to the House for further consideration.

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The swift action furthers the mad dash state leaders initiated three weeks ago to come up with a new policy after the Supreme Court struck down Massachusetts’ controversial buffer zone law. Lawmakers want to pass the bill before the legislative session ends July 31.

“It is a resolution that will restore the basic rights that all women are entitled to when it comes to how they take care of their health, and, most importantly, it restores the privacy and respect that all women deserve when they are accessing health care,” Senate President Therese Murray said in a statement.

Earlier Wednesday, Governor Deval Patrick testified briefly before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, saying the state has a “pressing need” for new legislation governing protests outside abortion clinics.

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“A person who objects to abortion has a right to express that view,” he said. “But a person seeking health care also has the right to feel safe.”

The new law, as proposed by Senator Harriette L. Chandler, a Worcester Democrat, would allow police to order one or more protesters to withdraw if they impede access to a clinic. If ordered to back off, protesters would have to stay at least 25 feet from the building for up to eight hours. The attorney general could seek fines and compensatory damages from protesters who broke the law.

Massachusetts previously had a buffer zone law, which prohibited protesting within 35 feet of the entrance to abortion clinics, but the Supreme Court deemed that statute unconstitutional last month.

Since the high court’s decision, abortion rights supporters say they have seen an escalation in yelling and the number of protesters outside clinics across the Bay State.

Attorney General Martha Coakley told lawmakers that since the ruling, protesters have followed patients more closely around clinic entrances, and her office is investigating a claim that a woman had her pathway blocked by an antiabortion activist. She said some patients have not shown up for appointments.

“We cannot afford to wait,” Coakley said at the committee hearing Wednesday morning.

Martha Walz, chief executive of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, said patients — some of whom visit clinics not for abortions, but for breast cancer screenings or treatment of sexually transmitted infections — have faced screaming and slurs.

“By scaring the patients, the protesters are scaring women who are taking responsibility for their health care,” Walz said.

For six hours, leaders and citizens testified before the judiciary committee, offering competing views of the protests outside local clinics.

Abortion-rights supporters depicted the protesters as loud and pushy, with grossly exaggerated signs and pamphlets. Antiabortion advocates said they are peaceful counselors trying to provide choices to women, and they often face threatening chants from abortion-rights supporters.

Outside the hearing at the State House, Eleanor McCullen, the named plaintiff in the buffer zone case that went before the Supreme Court, vowed to fight if lawmakers approve the bill.

“If this passes, will I go back to court? Yes. Absolutely,” she said.

McCullen contended that many provisions are overly vague. She said the concept of “impeding” is subjective.

“If a police officer decides to be a little mean, he could say, ‘They’re impeding,’ ” McCullen said.

Philip Moran, a lawyer for McCullen, called the bill “more draconian and more unconstitutional” than the old law because it introduces the potential for fines for protesters.

Antiabortion advocates at the meeting said existing statutes barring assault and disturbing the peace could protect patients without restricting their speech. They questioned the intent behind the bill, saying it seemed like a vindictive attempt to silence their views.

“The laws in Massachusetts should not be written against a certain segment of society,” Representative James J. Lyons Jr., an Andover Republican, said, while urging colleagues “not to rush to judgement.”

Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, said the bill would “effectively create a new buffer zone law for the state.” She said abortion-rights advocates portray protesters as angry and vitriolic, but since the Supreme Court ruling, she has not seen any videos or police reports about antiabortion advocates behaving badly.

“All these stories,” Fox said. “Where’s the beef?”

Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans said he has occasionally increased law enforcement presence outside a Planned Parenthood clinic on Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton since the Supreme Court’s ruling. He did not have statistics for the number of incidents police have dealt with and said officers have not arrested anyone.

Last Saturday, Evans said, he had to station a superintendent, a captain, two sergeants, and six officers at the clinic to watch over 100 protesters.

“You’re probably easily talking a couple thousand dollars just to protect the place” last weekend, Evans told the judiciary committee.

The police commissioner said the new legislation would create clear guidelines for easier enforcement.

“We have no direction,” Evans said of the current environment. “It’s just people roaming out there in front of the establishment.”

Related coverage:

Mass. abortion clinic buffer zones ruled illegal

Opinion: Buffer zone rhetoric belies facts about pro-life protesters

Abraham: With no buffer zone, patients pressed at Planned Parenthood

Editorial: After court’s ruling, state must find new ways to protect patients

Weiss: Supreme Court is naive on buffer zones

Opinion: the First Amendment, loved and loathed

Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at zachary.sampson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZackSampson.
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