Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (D) signed into law yesterday a bill to help protect access to reproductive health care facilities in the state.

The law, entitled An Act to Promote Public Safety and Protect Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities, enables a law enforcement official to order the “immediate dispersal of a gathering that substantially impedes access to or departure from an entrance or a driveway to a reproductive health care facility.” The order would “remain in place for 8 hours or until the close of business of the reproductive health facility, whichever is earlier,” and make noncompliance punishable with a fine or jail time.  The law also enacts a state-version of the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), prohibiting the use of force, threats, intimidation, or other acts meant to impede access to a clinic.

“I am incredibly proud to sign legislation that continues Massachusetts leadership in ensuring that women seeking to access reproductive health facilities can do so safely and without harassment, and that the employees of those facilities can arrive at work each day without fear of harm,” said Governor Patrick.

The new Massachusetts legislation was passed in response to the US Supreme Court decision in McCullen v. Coakley, striking down the state’s 35-foot clinic buffer zone law, which had been set up to protect doctors, clinic patients, and staff from violence, harassment, and intimidation. The law will go into effect immediately.

“The US Supreme Court failed to appreciate the history of violence, harassment, and intimidation that doctors, patients, and clinic staff have had to endure,” said Feminist Majority Foundation Executive Director Katherine Spillar. “This new law will help ensure that no one will have to walk a gauntlet to exercise her constitutional right to abortion.”

Massachusetts had first enacted a buffer zone law in 2000 after repeated incidents of clinic violence and intimidation in Massachusetts, including the murders in 1994 of two clinic receptionists, Shannon Lowney, 25, and Lee Ann Nichols, 38, by anti-abortion extremist John Salvi at two separate clinics in Brookline. Five other people were wounded in those attacks. The law was subsequently strengthened in 2007 to create the 35-foot safety buffer zone after anti-abortion demonstrators continued to crowd clinic entrances, block cars from entering driveways, and intimidate patients, doctors, and healthcare workers. At the time, local law enforcement made clear that having a better-defined buffer zone would promote public safety.

Media Resources: Office of Governor Deval Patrick 7/30/14; Boston Globe 7/30/14; Commonwealth of Massachusetts

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