BOSTON (AP) — Gov. Deval Patrick said Wednesday he expects to have a bill on his desk by the end of the month that would strengthen security around abortion clinics in Massachusetts.
The legislation is a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision last week striking down the state’s 35-foot buffer zone law, deeming it an unconstitutional restraint on the free-speech rights of protesters.
The decision has been praised by anti-abortion activists but decried by abortion rights supporters and the top elected official in Massachusetts, who say the zones helped protect public safety.
Patrick called the ruling “a setback for reproductive freedom,” but said the court also gave the state a roadmap for possible legislative action the state could take that would survive a constitutional challenge.
“That really creates the framework,” Patrick said.
Attorney General Martha Coakley said she has begun working with lawmakers to craft legislation to help protect women entering clinics while respecting the rights of protesters.
Those options include giving police more power to disperse crowds, Coakley said. Operators of the clinics, which also offer services other than abortion, have pointed to efforts by some protesters in the past to block entranceways.
The legislation could also help guard access to driveways leading to clinics and adopt on a state level some of the protections included in the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, she said.
“Women should not be afraid or too stressed out to seek necessary medical care,” said Coakley, a Democratic candidate for governor. “The Supreme Court might not have liked our buffer zone, but they did not lessen our commitment to protecting women’s access to reproductive health care.”
Anti-abortion protesters say they’re just exercising their First Amendment rights as they try to counsel women.
“Women often seek out abortion as a last resort,” said Eva Murphy of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. “They’re frightened. They’re pressured by family or a boyfriend or a spouse. They want help, and we offer that.”
“We should be free to walk around and try to persuade women to talk to us, and if they don’t want to talk to us, fine,” she added.
But Marty Walz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, said the court doesn’t understand the gauntlet women had to run before the buffer zone was enacted. She said that included protesters screaming at women and attempting to block entranceways.
“That is the world that the Supreme Court has brought us back to,” said Walz, who as a former state lawmaker sponsored the buffer zone law.
Lawmakers will have to move quickly. The Legislature’s formal session ends July 31. After that, the objection of a single lawmaker can stall legislation for the rest of the year.
To get a bill to Patrick before then, lawmakers will have to write it, file it and hold public hearings. They bill will also have to win final approval in both the House and Senate.