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Mass. Senate OK's expanded limits on abortion protesters

Senators Susan Fargo (center) and Harriette Chandler (right) at a press conference yesterday on the expanded buffer zone. Senators Susan Fargo (center) and Harriette Chandler (right) at a press conference yesterday on the expanded buffer zone. (DOMINIC CHAVEZ/GLOBE STAFF)

A bill that would establish a 35-foot no-protest zone around clinics where abortions are performed won the support of the state Senate yesterday and now proceeds to the House, where at least 75 lawmakers have endorsed it.

The legislation would almost double the current 18-foot buffer zone and bar protesters from entering it. Currently, protesters may come within 6 feet of someone within the zone to provide counsel or share information, as long as the individual consents.

Supporters say the measure is a public safety initiative that would protect women from intimidation they may face from protesters and would make it easier to prosecute violators.

But opponents said the bill violates protesters' First Amendment rights by limiting their ability to distribute materials that could encourage women seeking an abortion to change their minds.

"This infringes on the prolifers' ability to reach out to women in crisis who need vital information," said Marie Sturgis, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. "These are prayerful people who want to help in some way."

Senator Harriette L. Chandler, lead sponsor of the legislation, told colleagues yesterday that protesters sometimes dress as police officers and discourage women from entering Planned Parenthood facilities by asking many questions and intimidating them. In Worcester, she said, one protester dresses as the Grim Reaper.

"The Grim Reaper has been there for almost 25 years, reminding women every single time that they go into a clinic how serious this issue is, which they already know," said Chandler, a Democrat from Worcester.

Chandler added that most women who enter these facilities are receiving gynecological care.

Violations of the buffer zone have been difficult to prosecute because the current law is vague, legislators said. There has never been a successful prosecution under the law, which was enacted in 2000, because it is unclear how to prove that a patient did or did not give consent for a protester to approach, legislators said.

The 35-foot buffer zone would begin where the clinic's property ends.

The Legislature began debating creation of a buffer zone in 1994, after an abortion opponent killed two clinic workers and injured others at two Brookline facilities. The law had originally called for a 25-foot buffer zone, but it was deemed too restrictive by House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, an abortion foe.

During a press conference yesterday, Chandler, Senator Susan Fargo, a cosponsor, and advocates from Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts stood next to large photographs of a protester dressed as a Boston police officer talking to a driver entering a healthcare facility.

"This is the level of protesting that is going at reproductive health centers in Massachusetts," said Angus McQuilken of Planned Parenthood. "This is the type of protesting that this law is designed to prevent."

Sturgis said she routinely talks to women who tell her they wish they had received her materials before entering a clinic to have an abortion.

"I think that the bottom line is that this is a matter of life and death for women and children," Sturgis said.

Expansion of the buffer zone has the support of House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and nearly half of the 160 state representatives, said Representative Carl Sciortino, a cosponsor. Attorney General Martha Coakley testified in support of the bill at a hearing in May.

Governor Deval Patrick released a statement of support.

"Women in the Commonwealth have the right to medical care free of violence, harassment, or intimidation," Patrick said. "The Senate's decision today to widen the buffer zone around reproductive clinics will protect patients from the abuse that so many have encountered as they seek care."

"We're not talking here about denying people the right to have freedom of speech," Chandler said. "What we're talking about is allowing people to access healthcare."

April Simpson can be reached at asimpson@globe.com.

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