By Christine M. Williams, Anchor Correspondent
ATTLEBORO, Mass. — For one month Pro-Lifers stood vigil near abortion clinics without the threat of removal, jail time and costly fines. They prayed. They offered support to abortion-minded women and informed them of the assistance available if they want to continue their pregnancies.
On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in McCullen v. Coakley that the state’s 2007 buffer zone law was unconstitutional. All nine justices said the law, which had set up a 35-foot buffer around entrances to abortion clinics, violated the free speech rights of Pro-Life Americans.
At a rally in Boston on July 8, Attorney General Martha Coakley urged abortion supporters, “Let’s just not get angry; let’s get even.” She and other state legislators made enacting a new buffer zone law their top priority. They filed the bill on July 14, and before the scheduled end of the July 16 public hearing, the measure was reported out of two committees and passed through three Senate readings. The Senate passed the bill unanimously that day. The House voted 116 to 35 in favor on July 29. Gov. Deval Patrick signed the bill into law on July 30 — one day before the end of the current legislative session.
The new law allows a single police officer the discretion to require anyone “substantially impeding” access to the clinic to stand back 25 feet for a period of eight hours. Effectively, they have the power to issue temporary restraining orders without a court order. Local Pro-Lifers say the new law is not materially different from the 2007 law. They believe the latest legislation violates their First Amendment rights.
Robert W. Joyce, president of the Pro-Life Legal Defense Fund, told The Anchor that the 2014 buffer zone law gives police officers “unfettered discretion to exercise powers previously reserved for judges.”
“Under the vague language of the new law, even a simple physical act protected by the Constitution, such as peacefully offering an informational Pro-Life pamphlet, can be deemed intimidating,” he said.
Joyce added that the fund will monitor enforcement of the new law.
As of press time, sidewalk counselors continued to pray within the 25-foot buffer, and no one had been asked to stand outside any zones in the state.
Dwight Duncan, a law professor at the UMass Dartmouth and an Anchor columnist, said that implementation of the law will be key.
“I can imagine the police being overly eager to issue these withdraw orders,” he said. “In effect, they have the power to infringe freedom of speech.”
“There doesn’t seem to be real evidence of any bad behavior going on in front of abortion clinics before or since the McCullen case was handed down. What’s the real need for this?” he asked.
Pro-Lifers have pointed out that there are at least 20 state laws that could be used in the event that someone harassed women or blocked access to a clinic. They maintain that neither has happened since the court struck down the 2007 law. Sidewalk counselors have pointed out that it would be counter-productive for them to be aggressive when they want to convince women to have a change of heart.
In an email to supporters, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the four bishops in the state, opposed the law. They asked supporters to tell their legislators that they agree with the Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate the buffer zone and that legislative steps to weaken the ruling are wrong.
“It is particularly troubling since it is being rushed through both branches at the 11th hour of the legislative session without the benefit of a full debate,” the statement said.
Ron Larose, coordinator of the 40 Days for Life campaign in Attleboro, called the law “shameful.” He expressed dismay that state legislators made a law that restricts free speech in the Commonwealth their top priority.
“This current law will be challenged as well. Unfortunately, there’s no recourse when state governments deem it necessary to ignore the rule of law,” he said. “From our perspective, it clearly demonstrates that the legislature is fully capable and emboldened to restrict speech that they deem unacceptable.”
“It’s essentially the same law,” he said. “They reduced the footage, but that doesn’t change the intent of what they’re trying to accomplish.”
In a recent statement, the Catholic Action League characterized the measure as “a punitive, unnecessary, misdirected, and vindictive piece of legislation, intended to penalize victims of constitutional rights violations for having the determination to defend their First Amendment freedoms before the Supreme Court.”
The league’s executive director C. J. Doyle added, “Overlooked in this controversy over alleged violence in front of abortion clinics, is the very real and lethal violence which these facilities were built to perpetrate on a daily basis and on an industrial scale. An estimated 9,000 unborn children are killed each year in the Planned Parenthood clinic on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston alone.”