The House of Representatives has passed legislation that enhances public safety and protects access to reproductive health care facilities in Massachusetts.
The bill does not create a new buffer zone but instead authorizes law enforcement officials to issue a withdrawal order to someone blocking access to a facility entrance or driveway. Following dispersal, the individual must remain at least 25 feet from the facility’s entrances and driveways for a maximum of eight hours. The legislation requires the boundary to be clearly marked and the withdrawal law to be posted.
“Through a focus on conduct, this legislation will enhance public safety and protect access to care,” House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D-Winthrop) said. “My priority is protecting individuals using these health care facilities and I thank my colleagues in the Legislature, Senate President Murray and Attorney General Coakley for their vigilance in this regard.”
“This legislation establishes conduct as a reason for creating that 25 feet zone of protection, not the content of someone’s speech or their opinions,” said Representative Christopher Markey (D-Dartmouth), Vice-Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. “It allows for those patients and employees entering and exiting reproductive health care facilities to have that modicum of privacy without abrogating anyone's right to express themselves. This doesn’t limit or curtail protest, but rather it seeks to address those who would escalate the situation by impeding, obstructing or assaulting.”
“We commend the House for taking swift action to help ensure safe access to reproductive health centers,” said Attorney General Martha Coakley. “This bill establishes a path forward in our efforts to protect basic healthcare access in Massachusetts. I would like to thank the Speaker and the members of the House for their leadership on this important issue.”
The bill 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; and,
- Impeding a patient or staff member’s access or departure to a facility with the clear intent to interfere with the person’s ability to receive or provide services; and,
- Recklessly interfering with a vehicle attempting to access or departure a facility.
The bill aims to improve compliance by allowing for 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 would be able to award civil penalties. Any violation of an injunction would result in a criminal offense.
Under this legislation the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act would be updated to give the Attorney General the power to obtain compensatory damages, recover litigation costs and fees, and seek penalties for the interference of constitutional rights.
The bill passed the House 116 to 35.