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Senate Passes Bill to Protect Public Safety And Support Access to Care

July 16, 2014
Senator Spilka and colleagues from the legislature testifying before the Judiciary Committee in support of the Safe Access Bill.

Senator Spilka and colleagues from the legislature testifying before the Judiciary Committee in support of the Safe Access Bill.

The Senate on Wednesday passed legislation to enhance public safety and remove barriers to access reproductive health care facilities in Massachusetts, Senator Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) announced. This action follows the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down buffer zones across the nation, including the existing 35-foot buffer zone that was passed by the Legislature in 2007.

“This bill takes important steps to ensure women’s health, safety and dignity, while addressing the Supreme Court’s concerns,” Senator Spilka said. “All women are entitled to safe access to health care services, and I am pleased that we will continue to protect these rights for women in our communities.”

To enhance the ability of law enforcement officials to maintain public safety, the bill prohibits certain conduct outside reproductive health care facilities that threatens access and safety.

The bill authorizes law enforcement officials to order immediate withdrawal of 1 or more individuals who have on that day substantially impeded access to a facility entrance or driveway. After the order is issued, the individuals must remain at least 25 feet from the facility’s entrances and driveways for a maximum of eight hours. The 25-foot boundary must be clearly marked and the reflecting law must be posted.

It also 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.

The bill prohibits impeding a patient or staff member’s access to or departure from a facility with the intent to interfere with that person’s ability to obtain or provide health care services. The law prohibits knowingly impeding an individual or vehicle’s access to or departure from a facility. It also prohibits recklessly interfering with the operation of a vehicle that attempts to enter, exit or park at a facility. Violations of any of these provisions can result in arrest and criminal charges.

In addition, the bill enhances the ability of private parties and the Attorney General to ensure compliance by filing a civil action in court. The bill allows 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 may also award civil penalties. Any violation of an injunction would constitute a criminal offense. These provisions largely reflect the civil remedies available under the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act.

The bill also amends the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (MCRA) to allow the Attorney General to obtain compensatory damages on behalf of an affected individual or entity, recover litigation costs and fees and seek civil penalties for the interference of constitutional rights. The Attorney General currently has the ability through the existing MCRA to seek injunctions where an individual or group “interfere by threats, intimidation or coercion, or attempt to interfere by threats, intimidation or coercion” with the exercise of a protected right, including the right to access reproductive health care.

The bill now goes to the House for consideration.

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