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Massachusetts House approves bill designed to tighten security around abortion clinics

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BOSTON — The Massachusetts House approved a bill on Wednesday designed to tighten security around abortion clinics.

The bill would let police disperse one or more individuals who are substantially impeding access to a clinic. After a dispersal order is issued in writing, those individuals would have to stay at least 25 feet from the clinic's entrances for up to eight hours.

The 25-foot boundary would have to be clearly marked and the regulations posted in public.

The bill also prohibits anyone from intentionally injuring or intimidating an individual trying to enter or leave a facility using force or the threat of force.

The legislation is a response to the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down a 2007 Massachusetts law that established protest-free 35-foot "buffer zones" around the entrances of abortion clinics.

The House approved the bill on a 116-35 vote. The Senate approved it last week on a voice vote, meaning no individual votes were recorded.

Abortion opponents have said they would head back to court if the bill is approved.

State Rep. James Lyons argued against the bill Wednesday, saying lawmakers should take more time to craft legislation that would withstand future court challenges. He said the current bill is simply a reworked version of the 2007 law tossed out by the high court.

"The bill ... is on the face of it unconstitutional," the North Andover Republican said.

Rep. Marc Lombardo called the legislation "a retaliatory bill" aimed at reining in anti-abortion protesters near the clinics.

"The reality of this bill is that we're trying to target a specific group," the Republican Billerica said.

Rep. Christopher Markey said the bill is fair to protesters, clinic workers and patients trying to enter or leave the facility because it focuses on public safety issues and not the First Amendment right to free speech.

"What we've done with this bill is to try to address the conduct of individuals, not the content of their speech," the Dartmouth Democrat said.

Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante also argued the bill is about public safety and not speech, alluding to the shooting deaths of two employees in Boston-area abortion clinics in 1994.

"There is a long, tragic history on this regard," the Gloucester Democrat said. "At some point in time there has to be a line drawn."

The bill would also let anyone who believes they are a victim of aggressive protesters to file a civil action in Superior Court seeking injunctive relief, damages, and attorneys' fees. Any violation of an injunction would constitute a criminal offense.

Supporters say that portion of the bill largely mirror civil remedies allowed under the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act.

The legislation would also amend the state's existing civil rights act to allow the attorney general to seek damages on behalf of affected individuals who have been blocked from clinics. The attorney general would also be able to recover litigation costs and seek civil penalties for the interference of constitutional rights.

The bill requires a final vote in both chambers before heading to Gov. Deval Patrick for his signature.

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