July 16, 2014
Contact: Tricia Wajda, Director of Public Affairs, 617-515-0531
Planned Parenthood Testifies before Judiciary Committee on Law to Protect Safe Access to Reproductive Health Centers
BOSTON—Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts (PPLM) attended a hearing convened by the Joint Committee on the Judiciary at the State House today, testifying in support of An Act to Promote Public Safety and Protect Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities (Docket number 2106). Testimony was given by staff and providers from PPLM health centers in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield; a PPLM patient; volunteer clinic escorts; and Marty Walz, President and CEO of PPLM.
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, filed this Monday by Senator Harriette L. Chandler, takes a narrowly tailored approach to address public safety concerns while meeting the legal standards established in the Supreme Court’s opinion.
During her testimony, Walz recalled feeling uneasy after seeing a protester lurking in PPLM’s doorway in the days immediately following the Court’s ruling this June, noting it was the same protester who had yelled in Walz’s own face seven years ago when she was a state legislator and visited PPLM. Walz, other PPLM staff members, and volunteer clinic escorts testified to numerous incidents of intimidating, abusive, and physically threatening protesters in the absence of a buffer zone.
“This is the world the Supreme Court has brought us back to - one where women seeking health care have to run a gauntlet of harassment. One where women seeking health care are placed in fear. One where staff members face frightening protesters on their way to work. We know what this world is like because we’ve lived it since June 26. We also know what this world is like because we lived it every day before November 2007,” said Walz.
“It is extremely disappointing that the Court failed to grasp the realities we face outside our health centers each day. But we refuse to accept this as the new status quo. That’s why we have worked with Senator Chandler, the Governor, the Attorney General, the Senate President and the Speaker to craft legislation that takes a narrowly tailored approach to address public safety concerns while meeting the legal standards established in the Supreme Court’s opinion,” Walz continued. “I applaud Senator Chandler for her leadership on this important issue and I strongly urge the Senate to take swift action to pass the Safe Access Bill.”
“I have a right to go to the doctor without being harassed,” testified PPLM patient, Pia L. “But that right and sense of protection I felt within the buffer zone eroded the day the Supreme Court struck the law down. We may have lost the yellow painted line, but we should not lose our right to feel safe and protected on our way to see our doctor. Let me be perfectly clear: harassment, intimidation, and fear tactics are not free speech.”
An Act to Promote Public Safety and Protect Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities (Docket number 2106)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.
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.
July 16, 2014