Safe access for women

The Boston Globe
August 6, 2014

By Marty Walz

What a difference a month can make. The Supreme Court recently put women at risk by striking down our state’s law prohibiting protesters from coming within 35 feet of the entrances to Planned Parenthood health centers and other reproductive health providers in Massachusetts.

In response, the Legislature and Governor Deval Patrick took swift action to reverse the damage as they collectively worked to enact the Safe Access Law. Effective immediately, this important measure will help patients safely enter Planned Parenthood and other women’s health care centers.

The law complies with the legal standards outlined by the Supreme Court, enhancing several existing protections and creating new ones. For example, the new law increases penalties for blocking women’s access to health care centers and gives law enforcement agencies more authority to order the withdrawal of individuals who impede access to reproductive health care centers.

At Planned Parenthood, our number one priority is protecting the safety of our patients and staff. That’s why we refused to let the Supreme Court’s disappointing ruling be the last word on the right and ability for Massachusetts women to safely access the reproductive health care they need and deserve.

As a former state legislator who drafted the original buffer zone legislation in 2007 and now CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, I know these protections are critical for women and their families.

In 1994, a man went on a shooting spree, killing a staff member from Planned Parenthood and another nearby women’s health center as well as injuring five others. According to the National Abortion Federation, by 2010, one in every five reproductive health care facilities had been impacted by anti-abortion violence.

Immediately after the Supreme Court struck down our states buffer zone law, I witnessed the negative effect the ruling had on patients and staff. For example, in Boston on the Saturday morning after the law was struck down, we had large numbers of protesters yelling at our patients and chasing them down the sidewalk, right up to the doorway of the health center. Recently, one of our patients made it through the throng of protesters for her appointment. Clearly rattled, she explained to a staff member that she was too upset about her experience on the sidewalk to stay, leaving with a diminished sense of security and without the medical care she originally sought.

On another occasion since we lost the buffer zone, I observed a patient trying to get out of a car outside our Boston health center. She struggled to get out, thanks to a brazen protester at the passenger side door. One of our volunteer escorts wedged herself between the protester and the patient so the patient could safely exit the car and the escort guided her until she entered our doorway.

At Planned Parenthood, we stand by the belief that the 2007 buffer zone law struck the right balance between women’s rights to access health care, the state’s obligation to protect public safety, and everyone’s free speech rights. But, as we know, the United States Supreme Court disagreed.

By removing this law that worked, the justices on the Supreme Court put women, staff, and the public at risk, exposing them to intimidation and in-your-face harassment.

That’s the world the Supreme Court has brought us back to — one where women seeking health care have to run a gauntlet of harassment. One where staff members face taunting protesters on our way to work. We know what this world is like because we’ve lived it since June 26. We also know what this world is like because we lived it every day before November 2007 when the fixed buffer zone was enacted.

We refused to accept this as the new status quo. So did many people. In fact people around Massachusetts and this country responded strongly and clearly to the Supreme Court’s ruling, immediately pledging to support health care access for all women. Since the ruling, we received applications from nearly 400 people who want to train as volunteer clinic escorts and help ensure patients and staff can safely access our health centers. Planned Parenthood harnessed this outpour of support and proudly partnered with women’s health champions to craft the Safe Access legislation that takes a narrowly tailored approach to address these types of public safety concerns. The Legislature prioritized this measure, fast tracking it to become law before it adjourned on July 31. Given the national political environment around women’s health, the quick action of our governor and state legislators is refreshing and positively distinguishes Massachusetts from those other states whose elected leaders are intent on restricting access to reproductive health care.

We’ll never stop fighting to make sure all people can make their own private medical decisions without judgment, harassment, or intimidation.

Martha “Marty” Waltz is president and CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.

This guest editorial originally appeared here.

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