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Massachusetts scrambles to reset abortion center 'buffer zones'

The Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts headquarters in Boston. Associated Press/Photo by Charles Krupa

Massachusetts scrambles to reset abortion center 'buffer zones'

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 9-0 McCullen v. Coakley ruling struck down Massachusetts’s abortion center “buffer zone” law in June, the state legislature rushed another, slightly watered-down version through the House last week. Gov. Deval Patrick, who pushed for the replacement, is expected to sign it shortly, after final negotiations between the House and Senate.

The original law stipulated a 35-foot buffer-zone around abortion facilities. The new bill stipulates a 25-foot buffer zone. While anyone may freely occupy it, the law allows law-enforcement officials to write up a “withdrawal order” to individuals who “substantially impede” access to abortion centers.

The new bill passed the House with uncharacteristic ease. “The legislature’s swift action will ensure that people can safely access reproductive healthcare in Massachusetts without fear of violence or intimidation,” asserted a NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts spokesman in a statement.

But pro-lifers, such as Mass Resistance, argue that the “public safety” rationale for hurrying another bill into place is a sham, given that there have been no prosecutions against pro-life demonstrators for assault or any other sort of violence in 20 years. Others charge the bill wasn’t scrutinized carefully, and its protections are already enforced by existing laws. “If we had just given this some time to play out, we would have known if there is a need for a new law or if everything is fine as is,” James F. Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, said during the House vote Wednesday. “It just seems to be too quick, too rushed.”

Bill Cotter, president of Operation Rescue: Boston, fears the law will serve as a template for subsequent laws across the country. “The only ones who are suable by the bill are pro-lifers,” Cotter said. “It will definitely have a deterrent effect on [pro-life] people.” While it is left to the discretion of law-enforcement, opponents of the bill suspect a withdrawal order will likely be made any time someone submits a complaint. Anyone who fails to comply with the withdrawal order may receive a civil penalty of up to $10,000.

“There’s no doubt about the fact that people outside of clinics diminish business,” Cotter said. “We have anecdotal evidence of women changing their minds.” Last year, 64 women changed their minds about undergoing an abortion because of demonstrations by Operation Rescue: Boston alone, Cotter said.

“If they were concerned about safety, they would be making bills that restrict the abortionists, not us,” he said.

Blake Adams Blake Adams is a student at Patrick Henry College, in Purcellville, Va.


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