By Gintautas Dumcius
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- The Senate on Wednesday passed legislation aimed at creating new protections for visitors to reproductive health clinics.
The bill, which was a response to the late-June U.S. Supreme Court ruling that voided the state's 2007 buffer zone law, hit the Senate floor hours after the Legislature's Judiciary Committee took testimony and signed off on the legislation.
"It's important for women to have safe passage to a health care clinic," Senate President Therese Murray, who testified at the hearing, said after the Senate's unanimous voice vote on the legislation (S 2281).
The bill gives law enforcement officials the authority to issue a "withdrawal order" for one or more individuals who "substantially" impede access to a reproductive health clinic. The order must be provided in writing, and protesters would then be required to stay at least 25 feet away from the facility's entrances and driveways for eight hours, or the close of business of the reproductive health facility, "whichever is earlier."
The legislation calls for the 25-foot boundary to be marked.
Supporters say the bill will increase public safety in the area outside reproductive health clinics and give law enforcement officials discretion in issuing the "withdrawal order." Opponents say the legislation is an unnecessary addition to laws already on the books.
The Senate signed off on an amendment tweaking the legislation, putting in the word "withdrawal" instead of "dispersal" in an attempt to tighten the bill's language and help it withstand a court challenge.
Earlier on Wednesday, Judiciary Committee members voted 11-3 for the legislation immediately after a public hearing. Sen. Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester) filed the bill on Monday.
Reps. Colleen Garry (D-Dracut), Sheila Harrington (R-Groton), and Keiko Orrall (R-Lakeville) voted against the bill after their effort to postpone action on the matter was defeated.
"There will be plenty of opportunity for debate," committee vice-chair Rep. Christopher Markey said before the committee vote.
Markey said he viewed the committee's job as to "get the ball rolling" in an attempt to pass a successor to the buffer zone law by July 31, when formal legislating ends until January.
"It may be a different bill that ends up on the governor's desk," Markey said.
The main plaintiff behind the Supreme Court ruling that voided the state's 2007 law creating a fixed, 35-foot buffer zone said she will return to court if lawmakers pass the proposal.
Eleanor McCullen, a pro-life activist, called lawmakers "desperate" in their attempts to pass a response to the unanimous court decision.
"It impedes what I'm trying to do," McCullen told reporters after testifying in front of the Judiciary Committee with her attorney Philip Moran and Rep. Jim Lyons (R-Andover).
McCullen said she isn't a protester but a "sidewalk counselor." "I represent hundreds across the country who are like me," she said.
Moran told lawmakers the bill was "more draconian and more unconstitutional" than the original 2007 law.
"The only thing missing, in this case, is a penalty box," Moran said.
But Marty Walz, the head of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and a former lawmaker, said McCullen is "not the norm" when it comes to most protesters outside of reproductive health facilities.
Walz, who co-wrote the 2007 law when she was in the Legislature, said she has seen protesters "chasing women down the sidewalk, scaring them." The proposed bill addresses the "full range of behavior," she added.
Gov. Deval Patrick, Attorney General Martha Coakley, Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral and Boston Police Commissioner William Evans testified in support of the legislation.
Cabral recalled her time as an assistant attorney general in the 1990s, saying protesters set up "blockades," with one group putting a disabled vehicle on a city sidewalk and then welding themselves to the vehicle.
According to Cabral, the cost of dealing with the blockade ran up to $30,000 and put first responders "at risk of substantial harm."
Coakley said patients are being followed more closely in and out of the facilities since the Supreme Court decision, and she urged lawmakers to act quickly in approving the bill. "We cannot afford to wait," she said.
Rep. Orrall asked Coakley whether the bill would have an impact on people holding anti-abortion signs outside the clinic.
"This does not affect speech, this affects behavior," Coakley said.
Evans, Boston's police commissioner, said his department has a "documented history of unsafe and sometimes violent" behavior at the Planned Parenthood facility in Brighton.
Evans, who once worked in the police district that includes the Brighton facility, said there were "multiple" assaults on facility employees and volunteer escorts, as well as incidents in which protesters rushed people approaching the facility's entrance and refused to remove themselves from the doorway.
"Dating back to at least 2000, the department has responded to multiple incidents of impeding access, harassing and intimidating conduct, threatening behavior, and physical assault in the area of the facility," he said.
Since the Supreme Court decision, he said the department has increased police presence at the Brighton facility, which is "not sustainable over the long term."
Rep. Orrall asked Evans for specifics about any recent incidents, and Evans said he did not have any available.
Evans acknowledged that no arrests have been made in connection to any recent alleged incidents.
Evans said the second Saturday of every month usually draws a large protest, and the department spent several thousand dollars deploying police to the area last weekend.
The creation of a 25-foot boundary will allow protesters to "safely continue expressing their views while limiting the public safety risk," Evans added.
The bill's proposed criminal penalties for anyone who threatens or intimidates a person attempting to enter or exit the facility "will serve as a deterrent for those engaging in criminal conduct at the facility," he said.
The legislation also allows private parties and the attorney general to file a civil action in court seeking injunctive relief, damages and attorneys' fees from an individual violating the "withdrawal order."
Before the existence of the 35-foot buffer zone, policing the area caused a drain on police resources, according to Evans. "It's lousy that we're back at it again," he said.
Rep. Lyons asked the Judiciary Committee and his fellow lawmakers to slow down their pace with the bill, noting that legislators held multiple hearings and heard testimony from 1,000 people on House Speaker Robert DeLeo's gun violence prevention proposal.
Lyons said his colleagues should respect the Supreme Court decision. "It is now the law of the land," he said. "We as legislators owe it to the people not to rush to judgment and make this a political issue."
He also pushed back on claims about some of the behavior taking place outside the clinics. "This suggestion that people are going down there to attack other people is without merit," he said.
Michael Norton contributed reporting.