Massachusetts to Protect Patients from Anti-Choice Harassment

Update 7/24/14: The Massachusetts House approved the ‘dispersal zone’ bill on a 116-35 vote. There will be a final vote in both chambers before the bill heads to the Governor for his signature.

In a unanimous decision earlier this summer, the Supreme Court made a narrow ruling that a 2007 Massachusetts law creating a buffer zone of at least 35 feet around family planning clinics that provide abortions violated the First Amendment. Chief Justice Roberts, however, joined the four liberal justices and suggested the state should attempt to increase patient safety through smaller buffer zones or by law enforcement using less intrusive tools.

A new ‘dispersal zone’ bill spurred by the Supreme Court’s decision and created with those suggestions in mind gives police the power to order a group of two or more family planning clinic protesters who “substantially impede” access to a facility to disperse and stay at least 25 feet from the clinic entrance for up to eight hours. The 25-foot boundary following the dispersal would have to be clearly marked and the regulations must be posted outside the clinic. The bill also prohibits protesters from using threats or intentionally injuring and intimidating anyone trying to enter a clinic. The attorney general can also bring a civil action against violators and seek relief and damages.

The Massachusetts Senate approved the bill by voice vote with bi-partisan support last Wednesday only a few hours after a full Senate hearing. The Massachusetts House is scheduled to debate the bill on Wednesday. Gov. Deval Patrick has expressed support for the bill and it is expected to pass the House.

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