Senate Passes Bill to Protect Public Safety and Support Access to Care

 We share this press release from the Senate President’s office. For more on this issue and to comment, visit this link.


Senate Passes Bill to Protect Public Safety and Support Access to Care

BOSTON – The Senate on Wednesday passed legislation to enhance public safety and remove barriers to access reproductive health care facilities in Massachusetts. This action follows the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down buffer zones across the nation, including the existing 35-foot buffer zone that was passed by the Legislature in 2007.

“This bill takes a responsible approach to address the public safety concerns while also meeting the concerns of the Court,” Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) said. “It is a resolution that will restore the basic rights that all women are entitled to when it comes to how they take care of their health and, most importantly, it restores the privacy and respect that all women deserve when they are accessing health care.”

“This bill carefully balances public safety and access considerations with free speech rights in mind,” said Senator Harriette L. Chandler (D-Worcester), Assistant Majority Leader. “It is important to address this issue of public safety through establishing civil and criminal sanctions for individuals who impede or take other actions to restrict an individual’s access to a reproductive health care facility.  I have seen the harassing and intimidating behavior of protestors near clinics; everyone deserves safe access, and I am thrilled to have the support of my colleagues.  I hope that the Senate votes on this bill favorably.”

“We have moved quickly to address a practical problem and we have kept constitutional concerns very much in mind,” said Senator Will Brownsberger (D-Belmont), Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on The Judiciary.

“This is a big step in the right direction for women’s rights and we applaud the Senate for passing this common-sense bill to help ensure safe access to reproductive health centers,” said Attorney General Martha Coakley. “I want to thank the Senate President, Senator Chandler and the members of the Senate for their leadership on this issue. We are hopeful that this bill will be passed and sent to the Governor’s desk before the session is complete because the time to act is now to protect this basic healthcare access in Massachusetts.”

To enhance the ability of law enforcement officials to maintain public safety, the bill prohibits certain conduct outside reproductive health care facilities that threatens access and safety.

The bill authorizes law enforcement officials to order immediate withdrawal of 1 or more individuals who have on that day substantially impeded access to a facility entrance or driveway. After the order is issued, the individuals must remain at least 25 feet from the facility’s entrances and driveways for a maximum of eight hours. The 25-foot boundary must be clearly marked and the reflecting law must be posted.

It also prohibits a person from intentionally injuring or intimidating, or attempting to do the same, a person trying to access or depart from a facility by force, physical act or threat of force.

The bill prohibits impeding a patient or staff member’s access to or departure from a facility with the intent to interfere with that person’s ability to obtain or provide health care services. The law prohibits knowingly impeding an individual or vehicle’s access to or departure from a facility. It also prohibits recklessly interfering with the operation of a vehicle that attempts to enter, exit or park at a facility. Violations of any of these provisions can result in arrest and criminal charges.

In addition, the bill enhances the ability of private parties and the Attorney General to ensure compliance by filing a civil action in court. The bill allows an affected individual, entity or the Attorney General to bring a civil action in Superior Court seeking injunctive relief, damages and attorneys’ fees. The court may also award civil penalties. Any violation of an injunction would constitute a criminal offense. These provisions largely reflect the civil remedies available under the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act.

The bill also amends the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (MCRA) to allow the Attorney General to obtain compensatory damages on behalf of an affected individual or entity, recover litigation costs and fees and seek civil penalties for the interference of constitutional rights. The Attorney General currently has the ability through the existing MCRA to seek injunctions where an individual or group “interfere by threats, intimidation or coercion, or attempt to interfere by threats, intimidation or coercion” with the exercise of a protected right, including the right to access reproductive health care.

The bill now goes to the House for consideration.