On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that the 35-foot buffer zone was an "extreme step" that violated pro-life activists’ free speech rights. Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the opinion, said the the buffer zones "burden substantially more speech than necessary" to achieve the state’s interests in maintaining public safety.
The Legislature passed the previous buffer zone law in 2007, almost 13 years after John C. Salvi III killed two people and wounded five others in separate shootings at Planned Parenthood clinics in December 1994. Those who favor legalized abortion, including officials from Planned Parenthood and NARAL, contended that intimidation and harassment is still a reality outside abortion clinics.
Megan Amundson, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, said in a prepared statement that the Supreme Court decision was "out of touch with the experiences of real women and real families."
"Whether you call someone a protester or a so-called sidewalk counselor, the harassment faced by patients, families and clinic workers is very real," Amundson said.
However, Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, told Aleteia that the state already has criminal laws in place where people can be charged with intimidation, harassment or assault if necessary.
"This new law creates a gray zone that only applies outside abortion clinics, and it specifically deals with people we know to be peaceful protesters and sidewalk counselors," Beckwith said.
The new law will enable police officers to require sidewalk counselors or protesters—if they "substantially impede" access to abortion clinics—to keep 25 feet away from the clinics for eight hours or until the facilities close for the day. Criminal punishment can include a $1,000 fine or a six-month jail sentence, though first-time offenders with minimal criminal records would probably just face probation.
Meanwhile, the law’s civil penalties can include fines of up to $10,000 and mandatory fees to cover an aggrieved entity’s court costs, attorney fees and expert witness fees, said Doyle, who described the law as "draconian."
"It’s quite punitive," Doyle said. "You’re replacing a permanent abortion zone with a discretionary buffer zone. You would think a 9-0 Supreme Court decision would have a chastening effect on the Massachusetts Legislature. Instead, they find new ways to circumvent that decision. It’s a disgrace."
Doyle joined other observers in criticizing how the Legislature fast-tracked the new buffer zone law. He noted that on July 16, two days after the bill was first filed, the legislation was voted out of two committees, passed through three Senate readings, and passed to be engrossed by the Massachusetts Senate, all before the end of a scheduled public hearing.
The text of the bill was also not made available until July 15, and less than 36 hours notice was given for the public hearing.
"I think it was unfortunate that this bill didn’t get a complete review and vetting that most bills get," Driscoll said. "If this issue was given time to sort of play itself out, we would have known better if there was a need for this."
"Legally, Massachusetts may be part of the United States, but politically, the Bay State is a Third World country," said Doyle, who criticized lawmakers for accepting the proponents’ public safety claims without any real evidence of ongoing harassment outside abortion clinics. Doyle also noted that the House of Representatives—which approved the bill in a 116-35 vote on July 23—rejected an amendment to extend similar protections to pro-life activists outside the abortion clinics.