Lawmakers debate buffer zones around Planned Parenthoods

Monitor staff
Published: 1/21/2019 5:50:10 PM

To work at Equality Health Center in Concord is to brace for daily confrontation.

Those entering the facility, which provides abortions as well as community health services, can find themselves on the receiving end of a steady stream of verbal abuse, according to Executive Director Dalia Vidunas.

Epithets have been thrown. Employees and patients have had their photos taken. Last spring, the facility was broken into in the middle of the night, Vidunas said.

It’s a story that’s played out across the country, the product of a decades-long tension between anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights activists outside clinics. Since 2014, clinics in New Hampshire – including those run by Planned Parenthood – have had the option of imposing “buffer zones,” protected areas outside entrances that prevent demonstrators from approaching too closely.

So far, none of the existing reproductive health clinics have made use of the law. But those who demonstrate say the clinics present an unfair portrait of their purpose, which is to offer options, not harassment.

The buffer zones, they say, would impede their ability to express that message.

“It’s very important that we make eye contact with people and that people actually hear us,” said Katherine Kelly of Auburn, who said she’s spent 10 years demonstrating outside the clinics, devoting “four or five hours” a week.

“If you give us a buffer zone, and put us across the street or in the alley and back, we can’t connect with people that we’re trying to connect with.”

Now, some House lawmakers are hoping to repeal the buffer zone law. House Bill 124, a bill submitted by Strafford Republican Kurt Wuelper, would eliminate the law enabling the zones on free speech grounds.

The legislation comes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 2014 against a Massachusetts law that established a 35-foot mandatory buffer zone around facilities that provide abortions.

Opponents say it’s only a matter of time before the Supreme Court weighs in on New Hampshire’s law and finds it a violation of the First Amendment, a prospect that could put the state in a costly legal position.

But advocates of the health centers argue New Hampshire’s law would not be similarly struck down because it allows flexibility and isn’t a mandate.

The state’s statute specifies that “no person shall knowingly enter or remain on a public way or sidewalk adjacent to a reproductive health care facility,” with exceptions made for patients, employees, emergency responders, contractors or passersby using the sidewalk. The zone, which must be clearly marked, may extend “up to” 25 feet of the entrance.

An earlier challenge to the law in the U.S. District Court in Concord was thrown out for lack of standing, with the court holding that a suit against the law couldn’t proceed until a buffer zone was actually established.

Presently, though no clinic has imposed a buffer zone, several are working with local municipalities to establish a proper area. If and when a zone is established, a lawsuit will likely follow.

Kelly argued the law in itself is discriminatory, targeting Catholics intent only on helping women know they have other options. Anyone entering the clinic that doesn’t want to hear the information is left alone, Kelly said.

“I find it very offensive that we’re singled out as a group,” she said. “We’re a prayerful group, and we’re just trying to help people.”

But Vidunas, citing national examples of physical attacks and murders outside abortion clinics, said the distance was necessary to give employees and patients peace of mind.

“With this extensive history of violence, it surprises me that anyone would think a buffer zone is not a useful solution to be able to make sure that violence does not take place,” Vidunas said.

The bill, which was recommended as “inexpedient to legislate” by the House Judiciary Committee, 14-4, will come before the full House on Jan. 31.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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