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Massachusetts abortion clinics boost security, lawmakers seek fix

By Richard Valdmanis and Elizabeth Barber

BOSTON (Reuters) - Massachusetts is beefing up security around abortion clinics and scrambling for a legal fix after the U.S. Supreme Court voided the state's buffer zone law that kept protesters 35 feet away, saying it violated freedom of speech.

Boston, Worcester and Springfield, the state's largest cities, have deployed extra police to clinics, and abortion-provider Planned Parenthood said it was training new "patient escorts" to help women through protests if needed.

Marty Walz, director of Planned Parenthood in Massachusetts, said she has been in contact with police officials.

"We have been assured that laws will be enforced," Walz said. "There will be additional police presence today, tomorrow, next week and as needed until we work out a long-term solution."

State officials and lawmakers have said they are working on new rules to protect women seeking abortions, and Walz said she expects a bill to be drafted as early as next week so it can become law before the legislative session ends next month.

"The clock is ticking and we know it," said Walz.

The Supreme Court said on Thursday the 2007 law that kept protesters back 35 feet (10.6 meters) violated the free speech rights of anti-abortion protesters under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by preventing them from standing on the sidewalk and speaking to people entering the clinics. (Full Story)

Anti-abortion group Massachusetts Citizens for Life called the Supreme Court decision "a victory for all citizens who value their First Amendment rights and for clinic-bound women who might need someone to talk to."

Massachusetts has 22 abortion providers, including 12 clinics and 10 hospitals, according to lobby group NARAL Pro-Choice America.

The ruling casts into doubt similar fixed buffer zones adopted by five municipalities around the country, including San Francisco and Pittsburgh.

"We are concerned that (the Supreme Court decision) may weaken the buffer zone that we have," said Heather Estes, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Shasta Pacific in San Francisco. "But we are waiting to see how lawyers interpret it."

Aleigha Cavalier, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood in Pittsburgh, said she hoped the city's 15-foot buffer zone ordinance would not be challenged. "We are hopeful that our ordinance is narrow enough that it will stand," she said.

NO MORE YELLING

A handful of protesters carrying signs reading "Abortion exploits women" and "Face it, abortion kills a person" gathered outside Planned Parenthood's clinic in Boston Friday morning, standing in an area that had previously been off-limits.

A police car was parked in front of the clinic and a Planned Parenthood volunteer was standing near the entrance, helping patients walk past the protest to the door.

"We know they're scared and we know they're confused," said protester Lorraine Loewen, 74.

She said the elimination of the buffer zone allowed protesters to approach patients. "Before, yelling was the only way we could project our voice."

Massachusetts enacted the law in 2007 after a spate of rough protests around the state's clinics, during which protesters sometimes blocked entryways. Officials said the law has simplified protection of patient rights by reducing police involvement and litigation.

It was the toughest of a series of laws enacted in the state since 1994 when two abortion clinic workers were killed in a Boston suburb. There have also been abortion clinic-related killings in Florida, Alabama, New York and Kansas.

"We have seen clearly that the threat of physical violence is real," said Dr. Laurent Delli-Bovi, Director of Women's Health Services in Brookline, just outside Boston. "This decision will make people feel more vulnerable."

Walz said she has 30 trained "patient escorts" for the Boston facility and scores more who have applied in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. She said the escorts are trained to get patients into facilities without physically contacting the protesters.

(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Daley in Pittsburgh and Jennifer Chaussee in San; Francisco; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Bill Trott and Meredith Mazzilli)

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