State pushes pro-life protests from clinics

by Beacon Staff • October 14, 2007

The law is designed to prevent pro-life demonstrators from interfering with clinic patients or staff at the entrances of the centers, a position that has angered some pro-life protesters who argue the expanded restriction impinges on their freedom of speech.,Massachusetts nearly doubled the buffer zone between patients and protesters outside its reproductive health clinics-expanding the barrier from 18 to 35 feet-when Governor Deval Patrick signed off on an update to a 7-year-old buffer zone bill on Nov. 13.

The law is designed to prevent pro-life demonstrators from interfering with clinic patients or staff at the entrances of the centers, a position that has angered some pro-life protesters who argue the expanded restriction impinges on their freedom of speech.

When it was first passed in 2000, the law defined a smaller "bubble zone" to keep activists from approaching individuals without their consent. Legislators say now that the doubled size of the buffer zone will make close contact less frequent.

The new law is the most stringent of its kind in the country, according to a Boston Globe article.

While she considers herself pro-choice, Emerson freshman Molly Coombs said she thinks the law violates the right to free speech.

"Anytime that you restrict the people's right to assembly, that's a violation of the First Amendment," the print journalism major said. "And that's not right."

Angus McQuilken, vice president of public affairs for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, said the 17-foot expansion will make an important difference for patients seeking privacy.

The Planned Parenthood on Commonwealth Avenue posted the law outside their clinic early this week and Boston workers painted a line 35 feet from the clinic's entrance on Tuesday afternoon, Dacey said.

McQuilken added that groups of about seven protesters from various organizations have gathered there each day.

The crowd doubles in size on Saturdays, Dacey and McQuilken said, in particular the second Saturday of each month, during which as many as 70 to 100 protesters can be found lining the sidewalks.

In the past, protesters have operated within the letter of the law, situating themselves in front of the doorway so that patients have to pass within six feet of them by their own consent in order to enter the building, McQuilken said.

"That's the sort of conduct that this law is designed to prevent," he said.

Eleanor McCullen was the sole "sidewalk counselor" to brave the rainy morning and show up outside the clinic on the day the bill was signed. Standing beyond the line painted 18 ft. from the doorway, she distributed pamphlets depicting the growth of a fetus in the womb to patrons of the clinic.

"It's a hard situation for anyone to be in," said McCullen, who visits the center regularly, "and I just do what I can to help."

The idea of a buffer zone was introduced after a man shot and killed two women at a clinic in Brookline in 1994, McQuilken said. The old bill was initially proposed as a 25-foot barrier from which protesters were banned.

Instead, a federal judge ruled in November 2000 that the proposal was unconstitutional, and the 18-foot buffer zone was devised.

The amended version, however, was too vaguely worded to protect some patients, said Lisa Dacey, Planned Parenthood's media relations coordinator. She said a patient's consent was not clearly defined.

"A patient could make eye contact with a protester. Is that considered consent?" she said.

McQuilken, who said he has advocated for a new buffer zone bill since 2004, also said the old law was too vague to work.

"For too long, patients in Massachusetts have had to run a gauntlet of in-your-face harassment to access reproductive health services," he said.

McQuilken maintained that the law does not violate any rights, and is simply in place to protect patients' privacy and peace of mind when they visit the clinic.

"There's a difference between speech and harassment," he said. "[Protestors] can still have a right to their opinion, and they can express that opinion, from a reasonable distance."