Last week the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that restricted protesters to a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics, ruling that the law violates the First Amendment rights of protesters. Gov. Deval Patrick (D) and state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D), however, say they are crafting a bill that will be ready for the governor to sign by the end of July that will strengthen protection for women entering abortion clinics but still comply with the ruling.
“I want to assure the citizens of the commonwealth that we will react, and we will react constructively and quickly,” Patrick said, according to MassLive.com. “And we hope, very much, working with the Legislature, we will have a fix on my desk before the session ends this summer.”
According to the Associated Press, Patrick referred to the high court’s ruling as “a setback for reproductive freedom,” but added that the justices provided the state with a “framework” for possible legislation that would withstand a constitutional challenge.
Patrick and Coakley’s proposal, according to the Boston Globe, would give police greater authority to break up unruly crowds and give the Attorney General broader authority to pursue injunctions against pro-life protesters at abortion clinics.
Patrick, Coakley and prominent abortion advocates gathered at a press conference Wednesday, where Coakley said that her office, along with that of the governor, lawmakers, and abortion advocates were examining several approaches to new legislation.
“Women should not be afraid or too stressed out to seek necessary medical care,” said Coakley, a Democrat candidate for governor who has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood. “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.”
Marty Walz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, who also sponsored the buffer zone law, said the high court has returned women seeking abortions to a situation in which they are being screamed at by protesters attempting to block their entrance to abortion clinics.
Walz added that abortion providers would like to take advantage of their historically strong relationship with the state attorney general’s office and seek assistance with that office.
Laurence Tribe, however, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University, observed that any effort to narrowly tailor the legislation could go too far and appear to target pro-life protesters for their speech.
Tribe said that creating “a package that is limited to the abortion situation just raises the suspicion that these are all indirect ways of suppressing anti-abortion speech.”
Eva Murphy of Massachusetts Citizens for Life said women are often under a lot of pressure when they enter an abortion clinic, and her group tries to counsel women.
“Women often seek out abortion as a last resort,” Murphy said. “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.
Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said following the press conference it was “very disturbing to see some of the highest officials in our state partnering closely with Planned Parenthood, which is a political and ideological entity, as well as an abortion provider.”
Beckwith, an attorney, said he would closely examine any legislation to determine if it meets constitutional requirements.
Since the Massachusetts legislature ends its session July 31, lawmakers have to move quickly to craft a bill, hold public hearings, and pass the legislation in both chambers prior to sending it to Patrick’s office. If even one lawmaker objects, the legislation can be stalled for the remainder of the year.