Massachusetts lawmakers are strongly considering a law that would increase the buffer zone between abortion clinics and anti-choice protesters.
A bill that would establish a 35-foot no-protest zone around clinics where abortions are performed won the support of the state Senate yesterday and now proceeds to the House, where at least 75 lawmakers have endorsed it.
The legislation would almost double the current 18-foot buffer zone and bar protesters from entering it. Currently, protesters may come within 6 feet of someone within the zone to provide counsel or share information, as long as the individual consents.
Supporters say the measure is a public safety initiative that would protect women from intimidation they may face from protesters and would make it easier to prosecute violators.
But opponents said the bill violates protesters’ First Amendment rights by limiting their ability to distribute materials that could encourage women seeking an abortion to change their minds.
“This infringes on the prolifers’ ability to reach out to women in crisis who need vital information,” said Marie Sturgis, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. “These are prayerful people who want to help in some way.”
Senator Harriette L. Chandler, lead sponsor of the legislation, told colleagues yesterday that protesters sometimes dress as police officers and discourage women from entering Planned Parenthood facilities by asking many questions and intimidating them. In Worcester, she said, one protester dresses as the Grim Reaper.
“The Grim Reaper has been there for almost 25 years, reminding women every single time that they go into a clinic how serious this issue is, which they already know,” said Chandler, a Democrat from Worcester.
Chandler added that most women who enter these facilities are receiving gynecological care.
Hah. I gotta love the Boston Globe for juxtaposing the claim that the protesters are “prayerful people who want to help” with the fact that protesters have been known to impersonate police officers and dress like the Grim Reaper. That’s both accurate reporting and pretty awesome writing.
As for the question of First Amendment rights, of course I support those. But we have also long accepted the fact that there are sometimes other rights that trump the right to free speech. I think that the safety of women seeking medical care free from harassment and the threat of violence is worth those restrictions. We’re not talking government buildings or private businesses — we’re not even talking a Planned Parenthood office building. These are medical clinics. There are plenty of other ways to try to “reach” women (by maybe providing them with birth control options before they get pregnant and making it easier for low-income women to afford to raise the baby that they may actually want), but this is clearly about intimidation.
The city of Oakland is considering something similar: legally preventing protesters from coming within 8 feet of patients, health care workers and escorts at any medical care facility where abortions are provided.
Laws differ according to state and some municipalities, but there are currently only a few local and state laws enforcing buffer zones outside of clinics. Many clinics end up relying on property lines, and a lot more just have to do their best to deal. It’s a real problem in need of a national law that is more strict that the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances act, which merely prevents protesters from blocking an entrance, making threats and actually committing violence. FACE does not provide buffer zones or prevent taking photographs or video of the clinic and/or patients, which means that protesters are still free to harass women by handing out false information about abortion, calling them babykillers, intimidating them with cameras, etc. These are loopholes that need to be closed to protect all patients, regardless of where they live. But until then I wish these local efforts well and hope that the idea catches on.