Legislative leaders signaled their support yesterday for a significant expansion of the buffer zone around clinics that perform abortions in Massachusetts, reviving a contentious issue that arose after killings of clinic workers in Brookline shocked the nation in 1994.
A bill filed yesterday by state Senator Jarrett T. Barrios and two other lawmakers would prohibit demonstrators from coming within 35 feet of the clinics' walk-in entrances or driveways.
Under a law that took effect in 2000, demonstrators are permitted to come within 18 feet of an entrance or driveway of a clinic where abortions are performed, but they must stay 6 feet away from patients and staff unless granted permission to come closer.
Proponents of the expansion say the current law allows disruptive and potentially dangerous protesters to get too close to those entering clinics.
Opponents, including antiabortion and civil liberties groups, condemned the proposal.
Marie Sturgis, executive director and legislative director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life Inc., said in an interview that the increased buffer zone would stifle those making good-faith efforts to educate women about alternatives to abortion.
''I don't know about the rowdy gang or why we even need buffer zones, but the bottom line is that these people are . . . concerned; they are caring," Sturgis said.
''We can't choke out the truth," she continued. ''We can't choke out information. I wonder what they're afraid of that they have to be so overprotective."
Carol V. Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said that her organization does not support the legislation as filed, in part because it would set a uniform boundary for a large number of women's health clinics that vary widely in where they're located and in the kind of access demonstrators have. A buffer zone that may afford a reasonable opportunity for free speech at one clinic, she said, may be too restrictive at a different clinic.
Rose said her organization will work with lawmakers to craft a more appropriate bill.
''This presents a situation where two rights are in conflict: the right of people to have access to medical care to which they're entitled and also the right of people to have their opposition to abortion . . . be heard," she said.
Bill supporters maintain that the 35-foot buffer zone would give abortion opponents ample opportunity to broadcast their views.
The bill could put Governor Mitt Romney and Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey on the spot if it passes the Legislature. Romney, who has said he is ''prolife," has pledged not to change the state's abortion laws; Healey supports abortion rights and said through a spokeswoman yesterday that she believes women should be able to gain access to clinics safely, but that she would not take a position on the new proposal.
Supporters of the proposed change say the existing buffer zone law has proved too vague to enforce and has allowed antiabortion activists to shove, shout at, and intimidate women and their families approaching or leaving clinics.
''What's being done to the people who are trying to access and leave these clinics is unpardonable," state Senator Susan C. Fargo, a Lincoln Democrat and cosponsor of the bill, said yesterday at a State House press conference.
The current law was enacted five years ago in a compromise under the House speaker at the time, Thomas M. Finneran, an abortion opponent. With Salvatore F. DiMasi, an abortion-rights proponent, replacing Finneran as speaker, supporters of the new bill are optimistic about its prospects.
DiMasi, who was not at yesterday's press conference, told reporters he would probably support the bill and predicted that a majority of the House would, too. He said, however, that he recognized that the state must strike a balance between allowing demonstrators their First Amendment rights to protest and protecting patients coming and going from clinics where abortions are performed.
''My inclination is that I would like to protect those people who are going into the clinics, so that they have their opportunity to get that service that they have a right to under Massachusetts law and under the laws of the Supreme Court," he said.
DiMasi stressed that he would keep an open mind and said he wanted to see the bill get a full hearing. In 2000, the current law passed the House on a 107-48 vote and in the Senate, 27-12.
The current law has its roots in a bill Fargo helped file in 1997 calling for a 25-foot buffer zone around women's health clinics that provide abortions, among other services. Senate President Robert E. Travaglini said yesterday that he supported the 25-foot buffer zone when it first came before the Senate, and that he supports the proposed 35-foot zone. He predicted a majority of senators would also back it.
''I don't think this is an issue that is going to warrant extensive debate," he told reporters.
But it's unclear if Romney would sign such a bill, or whether proponents in the Legislature would have the votes to override his veto if he doesn't.
Romney said during his 2002 campaign that he would not change Massachusetts abortion laws, a pledge his spokeswoman said yesterday applied to changes that would expand or restrict abortion rights.
''Governor Romney will review the legislation if and when it reaches his desk to make sure it doesn't violate his pledge to maintain a moratorium on changes to the Commonwealth's abortion laws," said the spokeswoman, Julie Teer.
Romney's actions on abortion and a host of other hot-button issues as Massachusetts governor will be closely scrutinized by Republican primary voters, activists, and commentators if he makes a run at the presidency in 2008.
Healey, meanwhile, has broken with Romney on a few controversial social issues, such as access to the so-called morning-after pill, and her spokeswoman, Laura Nicoll, issued a more supportive statement than Romney about the buffer zone.
''The lieutenant governor supports a woman's right to choose, including efforts that help women feel safe when exercising that right," she said. ''However, we need to give that legislation a full review."
Supporters of the change say the existing law is nearly impossible to enforce. Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, which runs clinics in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield, said it has received 46 written reports of buffer-zone violations from patients and staff in the last year. Half of them were referred to law enforcement, according to the group, but just one case was prosecuted and was dismissed.
The new bill, proponents say, is modeled after similar fixed-buffer zone laws in other states that have been upheld by federal courts.
''We have operated under the current law for five years now, and what we've found is it simply doesn't work," said Angus McQuilken, director of public relations and governmental affairs for Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood president Dianne Luby pointed out that the new bill was filed just two days before the 11th anniversary of the day a 22-year-old abortion opponent, John C. Salvi III, shot two clinic workers to death and wounded several others. Salvi later committed suicide in prison while serving two life sentences.
The shootings prompted Fargo and others to file a bill that eventually led to the current law.
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.