Submitted by Senator Michael Barrett (D-Lexington)
The state Senate has passed a bill to increase public safety and remove barriers to accessing reproductive health care facilities. The legislative action follows the U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down buffer zones across the country, including the existing 35-foot buffer zone passed by the Massachusetts Legislature in 2007.
“Given the ruling, we had to act fast,” says state Sen. Mike Barrett, D-Lexington, who notes the legislative session ends in less than two weeks. “Women have the right to access personal health care without being obstructed and without having to endure threats. Somehow we have to ensure this while accommodating the Supreme Court’s new-found interpretation of the First Amendment.”
To maintain public safety, the legislation allows police to order the immediate withdrawal of a person or group of people 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 building for a maximum of eight hours. The new boundary must be clearly marked.
“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, says. “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.”
In addition, the bill, put forth by Sen. Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, 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 proposal also applies to patient or staff member vehicles. Violations can result in arrest and criminal charges.
To ensure compliance, the bill enhances the ability of private parties and 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 now goes to the House for consideration.