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After court strikes down buffer zone, Massachusetts approves new law

 | 
Worcester, Mass.

Attorneys for pro-lifers have decided not to do anything yet about the new buffer zone law around abortion facilities that Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed July 30.

But they took issue with the law on various fronts.

"We believe the new buffer zone law is a backdoor attempt to interfere with the constitutional right of free speech in the service of women seeking abortion, whose minds are not made up, women who are looking for the hope, help and love which is Eleanor McCullen's mantra," and that of other sidewalk counselors, said attorney Philip D. Moran.

Moran, who has a law office in Salem, Mass., was at the counsel table Jan. 15 when the U.S. Supreme Court heard the oral arguments in McCullen v. Coakley.

Lead plaintiff McCullen sued Attorney General Martha Coakley and other state officials over the 2007 Massachusetts law that imposed 35-foot buffer zones around abortion clinics.

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Joining McCullen were other sidewalk counselors, including two from Worcester, who offer women alternatives to abortion. Plaintiffs said the law limited their ability to exercise their rights to free speech and equal protection under the law.

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down the 2007 law June 26. The next week Patrick and Coakley talked about responding to the ruling with legislation.

State Sen. Harriette L. Chandler on July 14 sponsored a bill that called for new restrictions. The Senate approved it on a voice vote July 16; on July 23, the House passed a similar bill 116-35. Three days later, both chambers approved the final bill.

Called "An Act to Promote Public Safety and Protect Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities," it went into effect immediately after Patrick signed it into law.

"I am incredibly proud to sign legislation that continues Massachusetts' leadership in ensuring that women seeking to access reproductive health facilities can do so safely and without harassment, and that the employees of those facilities can arrive at work each day without fear of harm," said Patrick, according to a press release from his office.

The Catholic Action League of Massachusetts condemned the new statute, explaining that "a single police officer can order someone [who is] found -- in the sole judgment of the officer -- to be 'substantially impeding' access to an abortion clinic, [to stay] 25 feet away from the entrance of the facility for a period of eight hours. Severe and escalating criminal and civil penalties can be imposed for blockages or noncompliance."

The 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."

After Patrick signed the measure, the Pro-life Legal Defense Fund discussed how to respond, Moran told The Catholic Free Press, newspaper of the Worcester diocese.

"We're not going to do anything until we see how it's implemented" by police, he said, describing it as "a vague and over-broad law."

None of the attorneys at the meeting could cite any other law that gives police authority to implement a temporary restraining order, he said, adding that that is usually reserved for a court.

He said it is also unusual for the Legislature to add civil and criminal penalties to the measure, and he called that move "draconian."

Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley said in spite of the high court's unanimous ruling, the Massachusetts Legislature "acted with unseemly haste to establish what amounts to a new buffer zone of 25 feet. ... The effect again is to make it very difficult for citizens seeking to offer alternatives to women contemplating an abortion."

"The civil law must balance the rights and duties of all individuals and we must be vigilant to ensure the safety of all people, regardless of their position on this most serious issue," he said in an Aug. 1 statement.

"I recognize the struggle for all involved, but I believe preventing any reasonable possibility for dialogue is a misguided use of civil law," added O'Malley, who is chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Pro-life Activities. "The Supreme Court seldom is unanimous in our day; the fact that it was on this question gives me hope that the judiciary will once again correct what I regard as an unjust limitation on free speech in Massachusetts about a fundamental moral and human issue."

[Tanya Connor is on the staff of The Catholic Free Press, newspaper of the Worcester diocese.]

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