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Legislation Filed to Enhance Safe Access to Reproductive Health Centers Print E-mail

July 14, 2014

Contact: Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, Tricia Wajda, 617-515-0531

Bill provides new protections for patients and staff in response to Supreme Court decision striking down 2007 buffer zone law

 

BOSTON –Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts (PPLM), along with state and legislative leaders, announced today that Senator Harriette L. Chandler has filed An Act to Promote Public Safety and Protect Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities.

PPLM along with Attorney General Martha Coakley, Governor Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and Speaker Robert A. DeLeo took swift action to draft the bill in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCullen v. Coakley to strike down An Act Relative to Public Safety, a 2007 law that established a 35-foot protest-free buffer zone to protect the safety of patients and staff at reproductive health care centers. The bill takes a narrowly tailored approach to address public safety concerns while meeting the legal standards established in the Supreme Court’s opinion.  

“By striking down the 2007 buffer zone law last month, the Supreme Court Justices put women, staff, and the public at risk,” said Marty Walz President and CEO of PPLM. “We won’t let that stand. Planned Parenthood is proud to support the Safe Access bill to ensure that our patients and staff have access to our health care centers without harassment or intimidation.”

“Women must be able to access reproductive health care free from intimidation and threats,” Attorney General Coakley said. “This bill is the best solution to protect those patients and employees in light of the Court’s decision, and we must act together to pass this legislation before the session is out. I want to thank the Governor, Senate President, Speaker, Planned Parenthood, and so many others for their shared commitment to filing this bill and continuing to protect access to reproductive health.”

“Here in Massachusetts we know all too well why we must ensure that women and men seeking access to reproductive health facilities can do so safely,” said Governor Patrick. “This bill protects those patients, and the employees providing their care. I know that the legislature shares my commitment to implementing these protections, and trust that my partners in the State House will act on this bill swiftly.”

“The Supreme Court’s ruling represents a major step backwards for women’s reproductive rights and diminishes the important progress we have made throughout the years,” said Senate President Murray. “This is a serious public safety issue that needs to be addressed to restore the privacy and respect that women deserve when seeking health care. I look forward to taking up this legislation in the Senate and seeing this bill become law before the end of the session.”

"My priority is protecting those using these facilities," said Speaker DeLeo. "This legislation will help people visiting such health centers feel safe and free from harassment."

“The Supreme Court’s recent decision has left Massachusetts in an emergency situation regarding staff and patients of reproductive health care centers,” said Senator Chandler. “The Commonwealth has had actual experience with violence against staff and patients.  Therefore, it is crucial to provide protections for the void left by the Supreme Court’s decision before further harassment, intimidation and violence occurs.”

 

Background Information:

The bill would not create a new buffer zone, but would instead enhance existing laws and create new ones that promote public safety at and access to reproductive health care facilities in Massachusetts.

Ensuring Public Safety & Access: To enhance the ability of law enforcement officials to maintain public safety, the bill prohibits certain conduct outside reproductive health care facilities that threatens access and public safety. Violation of any of these provisions can result in arrest and criminal charges.

  • Dispersal Orders: The bill authorizes law enforcement officials to order immediate dispersal where a group of two or more individuals substantially impedes access to a facility entrance or driveway. After a dispersal order is issued, individuals must remain at least 25 feet from the facility’s entrances and driveways for a maximum of eight hours. A dispersal area must be clearly marked and the dispersal law must be posted.
  • Injury & Intimidation: The bill prohibits the use of a physical act or threat or force to intentionally injure or intimidate, or attempt to injure or intimidate, an individual attempting to access or depart from a facility.
  • Clear Passage: The bill prohibits impeding a patient or staff member’s access to or departure from a facility with the intent to interfere with that person’s ability to obtain or provide services. The law also prohibits knowingly impeding an individual or vehicle’s access to or departure from a facility.
  • Vehicular Safety: The bill prohibits recklessly interfering with the operation of a vehicle that attempts to enter, exit, or park at a facility.

Remedies: The bill also enhances the ability of private parties and the Attorney General to ensure compliance by filing a civil action in court.

  • Civil Remedies: Where an individual violates any of the above provisions, an aggrieved person or entity, or the Attorney General, may bring a civil action in Superior Court seeking injunctive relief, damages, and attorneys’ fees. Where the Attorney General brings such an action, the court may also award civil penalties. Any violation of an injunction would constitute a criminal offense. These provisions largely mirror the civil remedies available under the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act.
  • Massachusetts Civil Rights Act: The Attorney General already has the ability through the existing Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (MCRA) to seek injunctions where an individual or group “interfere by threats, intimidation or coercion, or attempt to interfere by threats, intimidation or coercion” with the exercise of a protected right (including the right to access reproductive health care). The bill amends the MCRA to allow the Attorney General to obtain compensatory damages on behalf of affected individuals and entities, recover litigation costs and fees, and seek civil penalties for the interference of constitutional rights.

An Act Relative to Public Safety was passed in 2007 after decades of harassment and intimidation of Massachusetts women seeking safe access to legal reproductive health care services including birth control, cancer screenings, and abortion. After enactment of the law, protesters continued to hold demonstrations outside the buffer zone, and in fact recent reporting on McCullen v. Coakley confirmed the protesters were able to engage in precisely the type of speech they said the law precluded.

Before An Act Relative to Public Safety passed in 2007, protesters stood shoulder to shoulder blocking the entrances of reproductive health centers; obstructed cars trying to enter health center driveways; dressed up as police officers in order to obtain patients’ and staff members’ personal identifying information; filmed and photographed patients’ and staff members’ vehicles; screamed at patients and staff members; and even touched their bodies. Since the Supreme Court struck down the buffer zone in June, harassment and intimidation outside of health centers has increased once again.

Immediately after the Court’s decision, 1,500 supporters signed PPLM’s petition for a new law and more than 325 new volunteers applied to serve as clinic escorts at PPLM’s Boston health center. Several hundred people attended a rally at Boston City Hall Plaza on Tuesday, July 8 to protest the Supreme Court’s decision in McCullen v. Coakley and show their support for safe access to health care.

 

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Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts is the largest freestanding reproductive health care provider and advocate in the Commonwealth, providing sexual and reproductive health care through nearly 50,000 patient visits per year at seven health centers. Ninety percent of PPLM services are preventive, including lifesaving cancer screenings, birth control, testing and treatment for STDs, breast health services, Pap tests, sexual health education and information. For 86 years, PPLM has protected and promoted sexual and reproductive health and rights through clinical services, education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.pplm.org.