Editor’s note: On Nov. 13, 2007, Gov. Deval Patrick signed a law expanding the protest-free zones around abortion clinics to 35 feet. Lawmakers gave the law a special designation to allow it to take effect immediately.
BOSTON — Massachusetts lawmakers are pushing for expanded, protest-free buffer zones around abortion clinics, saying the state's existing law, passed after the 1994 fatal shooting of two abortion clinic workers, is too vague to enforce.
The bill, backed by lawmakers and organizations who support abortion rights, would create a fixed 35-foot buffer zone around a clinic's entrances and driveways.
They say the current law, which mandates a 6-foot "floating" buffer zone around patients within an 18-foot radius of a clinic entrance, is too confusing.
"For this right to be meaningful, it has to be enforceable," said Sen. Jarrett Barrios, D-Cambridge, the bill's chief sponsor in the Senate.
Anti-abortion activists say a fixed 35-foot zone is a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech and is harmful to women because it denies them access to information about alternatives to abortion.
They also rejected the argument that the buffer zone is a public-safety issue.
"This is really overkill. This is unnecessary. There is no need to increase the size of the zone. This is a choking off of information to the woman," said Marie Sturgis, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. "This is a life-and-death situation."
Supporters of the bill reject the free-speech argument, saying the bill bars protest only within the zone and that protesters are free to shout and carry signs as long as they give patients the space to exit and enter clinics without being harassed.
"That is a false kind of red herring," said Sen. Susan Fargo, D-Lincoln.
The state's two top legislative leaders indicated support for the measure.
Senate President Robert Travaglini, D-Boston, said he would be inclined to back the bill.
"If history is any indication it's likely to pass with a majority of Senate colleagues supporting it," he said.
House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, D-Boston, said lawmakers had to strike a balance between free speech and "protection for those who deserve to be protected."
"My inclination is that I would like to protect those people who are going into the clinics so that they have their opportunity to get that service that they have a right to under Massachusetts law," said DiMasi.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Mitt Romney declined to say if he would support the bill. She said if it passed the Legislature, Romney would review it "to make sure it doesn't violate his pledge to maintain a moratorium on changes to the Commonwealth's abortion laws."
The current law restricts anyone from distributing leaflets or "engaging in oral protest, education or counseling" within the zone.
Critics say the buffer zone is poorly defined under current law, approved in 2000. For instance, protesters can walk within the buffer zone if the woman consents, but critics say some protesters view silence as implied consent.
Only one person has been arrested under the law and that case was thrown out.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider the constitutionality of state buffer-zone laws, letting stand a lower court ruling upholding the state law. In 1994 the justices upheld a 36-foot demonstration-free zone around a Florida clinic. In a 1997 New York case, they upheld a 15-foot buffer zone around abortion-clinic entrances.
On Dec. 30, 1994, John Salvi walked into a Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Mass., and opened fire, killing receptionist Shannon Lowney, 25 and wounding three. About 10 minutes later he walked into a nearby Preterm Health Services clinic, killing receptionist Lee Ann Nichols, 38, and wounding two.
Salvi committed suicide in prison in 1996.
The original bill filed in the wake of the Salvi shootings would have created a 25-foot fixed buffer zone, but it stalled for several years in large part because it was opposed by then House Speaker Thomas Finneran, D-Boston.
Anti-abortion protesters are pushing their own bill that would require the state to distribute information about alternatives to all women seeking abortions.