Massachusetts' New Abortion Clinic Law Keeps Protesters At Bay — Without A Buffer Zone

When the Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts buffer zone law in June, it opened the floodgates for protesters outside the state's abortion clinics. Abortion opponents chased patients up and down the sidewalks and even up to clinic doors, according to Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts CEO Marty Walz. But the climate outside abortion clinics may change yet again: On Wednesday, Massachusetts enacted an abortion law that protects clinic patients from harassment — without a buffer zone.

Gov. Deval Patrick signed the Safe Access Law Wednesday afternoon, barely a day after state lawmakers finalized the legislation. Massachusetts legislators and abortion rights advocates have been working on the new legislation, which enhances protection outside abortion clinics and increases penalties for perpetrators, within days of the Supreme Court ruling.

"We wouldn't let the Supreme Court ruling be the last word," Walz said in a teleconference on Wednesday. "The justices put women, [clinic] staff and the public at risk."

For nearly seven years, reproductive health care facilities in Massachusetts were protected from harassment by 35-foot buffer zones, required in front of all entrances, exits and driveways. Protesters, whether abortion supporters or foes, had to remain outside the 35-foot zone. Although clinic staff and patients said the buffer zone made the area more secure, the Supreme Court struck down the law because the fixed buffer zone violated the protesters' First Amendment rights.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images News/Getty Images

But Massachusetts lawmakers and advocates didn't let the ruling deter them. According to Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who represented the state in court, the new law used the court ruling "as a roadmap." Under the Safe Access Law, clinic staff and the state can seek injunctive relief against individuals or groups, mirroring the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. Law enforcement also has the authority to withdraw individuals or groups impeding access to abortion clinics. Once a withdrawal order is issued, individuals must stay 25 feet away from the clinic for up to eight hours.

Coakley said the new law took into account the Supreme Court's suggestions, enhancing protections and going after "conduct that surpasses speech." She added that she's confident the law will stand constitutional scrutiny. However, Massachusetts anti-abortion groups have already pledged to challenge the law in court.

Both Coakley and Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, believe the Massachusetts law can lead the way for states across the country. A handful of cities and states, including Portland, Maine, Burlington, Vermont and New Hampshire, have seen their buffer zones vanish in the last month.

The law has an emergency preamble, which means it became effective immediately. This was good news at the Planned Parenthood in Boston, where clinic staff and patients have been fending off large crowds of disruptive protesters each week. Patients came into the clinic so rattled that some left without receiving health care, Walz said.

"We lived this everyday since June 26," she said. "We refused to accept this as the new status quo."