How Massachusetts Is Fighting Back on the Supreme Court’s Abortion Ruling

The state passed a law Wednesday that strengthens protest restrictions around abortion clinics.

Janice Pemberton (C) of Brooklyn, NY, speaks to pro-choice activists with the National Organization For Women at a vigil outside the U.S. Supreme Court on January 23, 2012 in Washington, DC. The vigil was held to mark the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
National Journal
Sophie Novack
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Sophie Novack
July 30, 2014, 12:49 p.m.

Mas­sachu­setts is not let­ting a Su­preme Court de­cision get in the way of what the state sees as ne­ces­sary pro­tec­tions for abor­tion clin­ics.

Demo­crat­ic Gov. Dev­al Patrick signed a bill in­to law Wed­nes­day that aims to pro­tect pa­tients at re­pro­duct­ive health cen­ters from po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous an­ti­abor­tion pro­test­ers.

The le­gis­la­tion comes in re­sponse to a Su­preme Court rul­ing at the end of last month that struck down a 2007 state law re­quir­ing a 35-foot protest “buf­fer zone” around abor­tion clin­ics. In a un­an­im­ous de­cision, the Court said the law vi­ol­ates the First Amend­ment in part be­cause the buf­fer zones in­clude pub­lic spaces such as side­walks. States could re­spond to spe­cif­ic in­cid­ents, the justices said, but a broad­er re­stric­tion like the Mas­sachu­setts law was deemed un­con­sti­tu­tion­al.

The new Mas­sachu­setts safe-ac­cess law ad­dresses safety con­cerns of abor­tion-rights ad­voc­ates by tight­en­ing se­cur­ity around clin­ics. The le­gis­la­tion in­creases pen­al­ties for ob­struct­ing ac­cess to health cen­ters, and in­creases po­lice au­thor­ity to re­move in­di­vidu­als who block pa­tients.

The state House and Sen­ate passed the bill Tues­day. The Le­gis­lature in­cluded an emer­gency pre­amble, mean­ing that the law takes ef­fect im­me­di­ately.

Planned Par­ent­hood League of Mas­sachu­setts has already be­gun pre­par­ing for the new law by mark­ing off the area where pro­test­ers in vi­ol­a­tion would need to stand tem­por­ar­ily, the or­gan­iz­a­tion said.

The law’s crafters hope it will also serve as a mod­el for oth­er areas with buf­fer-zone laws that have been af­fected by the Su­preme Court rul­ing. These in­clude New Hamp­shire; Port­land, Maine; and Bur­l­ing­ton, Vt., ac­cord­ing to Planned Par­ent­hood Fed­er­a­tion of Amer­ica Pres­id­ent Cecile Richards. There are also buf­fer zones in place in about six or sev­en oth­er com­munit­ies around the coun­try, but those have not been af­fected, she said.

An­ti­abor­tion pro­test­ers have already an­nounced they will chal­lenge the new law in court, ac­cord­ing to Mas­sachu­setts At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Martha Coakley, who worked on the le­gis­la­tion. But sup­port­ers of the law are con­fid­ent it will with­stand con­sti­tu­tion­al scru­tiny this time around, and say the tar­geted ap­proach is in keep­ing with the Court’s de­cision.

“The Su­preme Court took one tool away from us last month, but as Mas­sachu­setts has demon­strated, when they take one tool away, we come back with a full tool­box,” Richards said Wed­nes­day.

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