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Speed is not a word usually associated with state legislatures. But less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law that state is looking to pass a replacement law. The law the Supreme Court tossed out created a 35-foot buffer zone around clinics that perform abortions. The new bill would give police more power to disperse unruly protesters, and it has broad support. But as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, opponents say it still goes too far.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Abortion-rights groups started scrambling to come up with a plan B immediately after the Supreme Court decision. It took just weeks for a new bill to be drafted, filed and passed by the state Senate.
SENATOR HARRIETTE CHANDLER: The goal was to get it done as quickly as possible, so it's done.
SMITH: Lead sponsor Democratic Senator Harriette Chandler says that's because protesters have already jacked up the aggressive and harassing behavior around facilities that perform abortions. And as the Senate president put it, they're only getting more emboldened. Health care clinic officials say women have been canceling appointments because they're afraid of what they'll have to confront.
BILL EVANS: Unfortunately, there's some zealots out there who really get up in these young girls' faces.
SMITH: Boston police Commissioner Bill Evans told lawmakers he's been assigning extra police to the scene, but they've been limited in what they can do since the buffer zone law was struck down.
EVANS: The old behavior was back, as far as women being screamed at in their faces, being dogged as they went down the side street. And that's why we need to put some teeth into something to give us as police officers some tools to make our job easier.
SMITH: The new bill would create a kind of temporary and slightly smaller buffer zone for any protester who is deemed to be misbehaving. Anyone who is part of a gathering, defined as two or more people, and who is blocking access would be ordered to stay 25 feet away from an entrance for eight hours. But abortion opponents call the bill even more draconian and unconstitutional than the old buffer zone law.
ANNE FOX: This bill looks as though the Massachusetts legislature is disrespecting the Supreme Court.
SMITH: Anne Fox with Mass. Citizens for Life says the new bill gives police way too much leeway to decide what blocking access means.
FOX: It's very hard to figure it out. And it's very much in the eyes of the beholder.
SMITH: Fox says the new bill, which carries penalties of up to three years in prison and $50,000 in fines, would have a serious chilling effect on protesters' free speech. Eleanor McCullen, the lead plaintiff in the buffer zone case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, agrees.
ELEANOR MCCULLEN: If the police officer feels like saying, I think you're impeding the entrance - disperse. So now I've lost my momentum. A baby has been lost - one baby. One child lost is one too many.
SMITH: McCullen and other anti-abortion activists deny any harassment of patients has been happening recently. If it was, they say, the video would've gone viral by now. McCullen says she'll fight this new bill, just like she did the last one.
MCCULLEN: If this passes will I go back to court? Yes. (Laughing). Cause it's unconstitutional.
SMITH: Other cities and states have been watching Massachusetts closely and reconsidering what they can do. New Hampshire has put its buffer zone on hold, as have Portland, Maine and Burlington, Vermont. But it remains unclear if Massachusetts' new bill may serve as a model for others to follow. Harvard law professor Richard Fallon says in spirit, at least, Massachusetts has done what the court directed.
RICHARD FALLON: What's innovative about this is that it's a buffer zone triggered by bad conduct, and it's a narrower buffer zone. But then the questions will be whether this is narrow enough.
SMITH: Abortion-rights advocates say they're confident, as one put it, opponents were going to challenge anything. But she says she believes this new bill is tight enough to survive. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
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