Coakley, Patrick drafting legislation in response to buffer zone ruling

The now defunct buffer zone surrounding the entrance to the Planned Parenthood on Commonwealth Avenue. Photo: Nicolaus Czarnecki/Metro
The now defunct buffer zone surrounding the entrance to the Planned Parenthood on Commonwealth Avenue. Photo: Nicolaus Czarnecki/Metro

State officials and clinicians are working together to draft legislation they say will protect women seeking reproductive health care in Massachusetts. The bill is in response to a unanimous ruling by the US Supreme Court to strike down a 7-year-old buffer zone outside women’s health clinics as unconstitutional, on the grounds that it violates the free speech of pro-life demonstrators.

The bill will update the state’s antiquated dispersal law, making it easier for police to disperse a crowd of protesters who obstruct the entrance to women’s health clinics or otherwise pose a threat to public safety, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said at a Thursday press conference.

In extreme cases, Coakley said, police may be able to arrest protesters.

Coakley also said the bill may adopt on a state level some existing federal protections around health clinics, the details of which are still being worked out.

Gov. Deval Patrick said he expects to have the bill on his desk by the end of the month.

Following the June 26 ruling, many Planned Parenthood patients were “no shows,” and the women and staff who have entered the building have been intimidated by pro-life demonstrators, Coakley said.

“This is not acceptable. Women should not be afraid or too stressed out to seek necessary medical care,” Coakley said.

The clinics offer services other than abortions, such as access to contraceptives, cancer screenings, breast exams and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

President/CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts Marty Walz, who helped draft the buffer zone legislation in 2007, called the Supreme Court ruling a setback, and said she has already witnessed the “negative effects” of allowing pro-life protesters within the 35-foot zone.

“We removed a law that worked. In fact it’s the only thing that has ever worked to maintain public safety, and we know that because we’ve had decades of aggressive and harassive conduct outside of our health centers prior to that law being passed,” she said.

Walz recalled what she described as a terrifying experience with a male protester at an Allston clinic who was screaming at her just inches away from her face before the buffer zone went into effect.

“That protester was back at our doorway Saturday morning, just the way it was in 2007, scaring our patients and scaring our staff,” Walz said.

Another protester used a fireplace poker to shove literature into cars as they pulled into a Planned Parenthood driveway. Other protesters would walk slowly across the driveway’s entrance, Walz said, in an attempt to block patients from entering.

Follow Morgan Rousseau on Twitter: @MetroMorgan
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