New Hampshire House Passes Clinic Buffer Zone Bill

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New Hampshire House Passes Clinic Buffer Zone Bill

Teddy Wilson

Introduced by Sen. Donna Soucy (D-Manchester), SB 319 was a response to protests in front of Planned Parenthood in Manchester, where more than than 60 patient complaints have been logged since the beginning of 2013.

The New Hampshire house approved a bill Wednesday that would create a 25-foot buffer zone around clinics that provide abortion services. After two hours of debate, the bill passed with a 162-100 vote.

Introduced by Sen. Donna Soucy (D-Manchester), SB 319 was a response to protests in front of Planned Parenthood in Manchester, where more than than 60 patient complaints have been logged since the beginning of 2013. These complaints often included verbal harassment, intimidation, or passage blocking by anti-choice protesters.

The state’s senate passed the bill in February with a 15-9 vote; four Republicans joined all 11 Democrats in voting in favor of the proposed law, despite the Senate Judiciary Committee’s recommendation against the bill. Unlike most state legislatures, every bill in New Hampshire receives a floor vote regardless of committee recommendations.

During the senate committee hearing, supporters of the bill made the case that it was needed because of “harassment and intimidation” from protesters. Linda Griebsch, executive director of the Joan Lovering Health Center in Greenland, told the committee of her own personal experience. “I have seen it in action,” said Griebsch. “And if any counselor behaved the way some of these people do they would lose their license to practice and no one would go to them for help.”

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Opponents of the bill claim that the buffer zone would infringe on the protesters’ freedom of speech, and they dispute the claims that protesters are harassing patients and staff. During the floor debate, Sen. Sharon Carson (R-Londonderry) said, “Whether you agree with the speech or not, these folks have a right to be there,” said Carson.

Laura Thibault, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice New Hampshire, told Rewire that while there are protesters that are peaceful and respectful, there are many who are not. “This bill is a real balance between respecting the free speech of individuals and balances the respect and need for privacy of patients entering the clinics,” said Thibault.

“This doesn’t take away the right to free speech or the right for protesters to be there and to be heard,” said Thibault. “But it does take away some of the intimidation and harassment by those protesters who wish to approach women directly and get right in their face.”

If signed into law by Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, SB 319 would create buffer zones around all five of the clinics in the state that provide abortion services.

New Hampshire is set to join other states and municipalities that have passed similar laws and ordinances. Colorado lawmakers created a 100-foot buffer zone around entrances to health-care facilities and an 8-foot floating buffer zone around patients. The Massachusetts buffer zone law is currently awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court, which heard a challenge to the law in January.

The cities of Madison, Wisconsin, and Englewood, New Jersey, both passed policies this year. The Madison ordinance was modeled after the Colorado law, creating the same buffer zone around health-care facilities and the same floating buffer zone. Englewood’s version creates a buffer zone requiring protesters to keep an eight-foot radius of a health-care facility’s entrance, exit, or driveway.

Thibault said that the Massachusetts law under review by the Supreme Court was a concern while crafting the language of the bill. “The bill was drafted after some real careful consideration to the concerns that the Supreme Court is deliberating,” said Thibault. “We feel that this bill is tailored for this state and for the challenges that New Hampshire is currently facing.”

SB 319 must now go back to the senate to reconcile amendments that were added to the bill in the house. If the bill passes the state legislature it will then be sent to the Hassan for signature or veto.