BOSTON – The Massachusetts legislature today passed a new law to protect patients at reproductive health centers from abusive and intimidating protesters. Governor Deval Patrick has said he will act quickly to sign the bill into law – just a month after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 2007 state law that prevented protesters from coming within 35 feet of the entrances to Planned Parenthood health centers and other reproductive health providers in the state.
“Women shouldn’t have to run a gantlet of screaming, terrorizing, and bullying in order to get legal health care services, and this new law will help ensure that they don’t,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Last month’s Supreme Court ruling put women at risk. Barely a month later, Massachusetts is righting the wrong that the Supreme Court’s dangerous and misguided decision created.”
The Massachusetts law that was struck down was relatively unique, and the Supreme Court ruling could directly affect only about a dozen similar ordinances or laws around the country, according to Planned Parenthood’s analysis. The new law passed today can serve as a template for how other jurisdictions can protect patients while complying with the Supreme Court ruling. The law enhances several existing protections and creates new ones, while complying with the legal standards outlined by the Supreme Court. For example, the new law increases penalties for blocking women’s access to health care centers and gives law enforcement agencies more authority to order the withdrawal of individuals who impede access to reproductive health care centers.
Immediately after the Supreme Court’s June 26, 2014 ruling, sidewalks outside women’s health centers in Massachusetts were crowded with protesters – as they had been before the 2007 law passed. Far from the “counseling” that the Supreme Court claimed takes place in such protests, women were confronted with hostile, angry strangers screaming at them and blocking their path. While these protests are not common at all women’s health centers, when they do happen they can be extremely frightening and difficult for patients and health center staff and pose a threat to public safety.
Within days of the Supreme Court ruling, more than 375 volunteers applied to serve as clinic escorts at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts’ (PPLM) Boston health center, and hundreds attended rallies against the ruling.
“Make no mistake: Our doors are open, and our patients are safe,” said Marty Walz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. “We’re grateful to everyone who has come forward to volunteer and to advocate for a new law to protect our patients, and we commend the state legislature and Governor Patrick for taking strong, swift action. Protecting patients and free speech at the same time isn’t just possible – it’s imperative, and that’s what this law does.”
Because the legislature included what is known as an emergency preamble, the Safe Access bill will take effect immediately upon Governor Patrick’s signature. PPLM has already started preparing for the new law by creating the necessary signs and working with municipal officials to mark off the area where protesters may be ordered to stand temporarily if they have substantially impeded access to a reproductive health center.
An Act to Promote Public Safety and Protect Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities (S. 2283) does not create a new buffer zone, but instead enhances existing laws and creates 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 law 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.
- Withdrawal Orders: The law authorizes law enforcement officials to order the immediate withdrawal of one or more individuals who substantially impede access to a facility entrance or driveway. After a written withdrawal order is issued, the individual(s) who received the withdrawal order must remain at least 25 feet from the facility’s entrances and driveways for a maximum of eight hours. A withdrawal area must be clearly marked and the withdrawal law must be posted.
- Injury & Intimidation: The law 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 law 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 law prohibits recklessly interfering with the operation of a vehicle that attempts to enter, exit, or park at a facility.
Remedies. The law 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 law 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.
Planned Parenthood is the nation’s leading provider and advocate of high-quality, affordable health care for women, men, and young people, as well as the nation’s largest provider of sex education. With more than 700 health centers across the country, Planned Parenthood organizations serve all patients with care and compassion, with respect and without judgment. Through health centers, programs in schools and communities, and online resources, Planned Parenthood is a trusted source of reliable health information that allows people to make informed health decisions. We do all this because we care passionately about helping people lead healthier lives.
Planned Parenthood Federation of America media office: 212-261-4433
July 29, 2014