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National Perspective | COURTS

Massachusetts Abortion Clinic Law Discriminatory, Judge Says

'Sidewalk counselors' must have opportunity to approach patients, jurist rules in striking down 'buffer zone.' Statute had been crafted in the wake of 1994 fatal shootings.

November 22, 2000|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — A semblance of calm that settled briefly around a row of abortion clinics here was shattered this week when a federal judge struck down a new state law creating a "buffer zone" between patients and abortion opponents.

U.S. District Judge Edward F. Harrington ruled Monday that the law discriminates against abortion foes by requiring them to stand at least 6 feet from patients entering or leaving the clinics.

"Pro-life advocates who firmly believe that abortion remains a grave moral evil must be given as equal an opportunity as their opponents to express to those seeking an abortion their sincere message of respect for the sanctity of innocent human life," Harrington said in his ruling. "The 1st Amendment requires no less."

State lawmakers painstakingly designed the law after shootings by John Salvi left four people dead at two Boston abortion clinics on New Year's Eve 1994. The measure had won a unanimously favorable vote from the state's highest court.

Before and after the 1994 incident, abortion protesters occupied the sidewalk outside clinics operated by the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. Tension between the "sidewalk counselors" and employee and patients of the clinics often ran high before the law took effect Nov. 10.

Dianne Luby, state president of Planned Parenthood, on Tuesday called the decision "a step backward" for abortion supporters and providers.

But Operation Rescue member Mary Ann McGuire, who is a regular presence outside clinics here, hailed the federal judge's action. McGuire said the buffer zone interfered with attempts to persuade women to reconsider having an abortion.

A similar law in Colorado that established a 100-foot buffer zone around medical facilities was upheld in June by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court concluded that a "bubble" outside abortion clinics did not constitute a violation of free speech rights.

The Massachusetts law required abortion protesters to stay at least 18 feet away from clinics and at least six feet away from women entering any clinic.

Pam Nourse, a Planned Parenthood official here, said that, after buffer zones were installed in Colorado, tension between protesters and abortion advocates lessened noticeably.

In the 10 days since the law took effect in Boston, "patients and staff reported almost a sense of relief," Nourse said. "They didn't have to worry about that in-your-face harassment" from protesters.

Lawyers for the Pro Life Defense Fund here sought to overturn the law on behalf of three sidewalk counselors. The lawyers contended the Massachusetts law was substantively different from the Colorado statute.

The federal judge's decision applies to abortion clinics throughout Massachusetts.

A spokesman for state Atty. Gen. Thomas Reilly said an appeal is under consideration.

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