Massachusetts lawmakers take up bill on abortion clinic buffer zones

BOSTON, July 16 Wed Jul 16, 2014 2:39pm EDT

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BOSTON, July 16 (Reuters) - Massachusetts lawmakers took up consideration on Wednesday of a bill to limit protests around abortion clinics after the U.S. Supreme Court last month struck down an earlier law that kept demonstrators at least 35 feet (9 meters) from clinic entrances.

The new bill would allow police to issue a dispersal order if at least two demonstrators are found to be blocking patient or staff access to abortion clinics. Such an order would bar protesters from coming within 25 feet (7.6 meters) of the clinic's entrance for a maximum of eight hours.

The proposal went before a joint committee incorporating members of both chambers of the state legislature as lawmakers rushed to try to get it to Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, who has said he supports it, before the end of the legislative session on July 31.

Proponents of the measure told the committee abortion clinics have faced a renewed wave of protests since the Supreme Court found that the 2007 law violated protesters' free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution.

That case concerned people who wanted to protest outside three Planned Parenthood facilities in Massachusetts that offer abortions in addition to other women's health services.

"What I experienced in 2007 is happening today," said Martha Walz, president of the state branch of Planned Parenthood.

Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said police had been called to respond to multiple incidents since the decision.

"It's lousy that we're back at it again," Evans said.

The legislation would prohibit demonstrators from using "force, physical act or threat of force" against anyone entering or leaving an abortion clinic, as well as bar protesters from attempting to impede a person or vehicle's access to a clinic.

It would allow for civil action against anyone in violation, similar to provisions in a 1994 federal law.

"This bill does not affect speech. It affects behavior," said state Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democrat who is running for governor. "These tools will only be used if behavior crosses the line."

Anti-abortion groups voiced concern that the definition of harassment is too vague.

"This bill is more punitive than the last law," Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, said in an interview. "It looks like they're just sassing the Supreme Court."

Eleanor McCullen, the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, said she was afraid police might interpret her personal conversations with patients as blocking a clinic. (Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)

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