N.H. House kills repeal of abortion buffer zone law 

  • House lawmakers discuss a bill to repeal the ability for Planned Parenthood to set buffer zones outside clinics, Jan. 31, 2019. The bill was ultimately killed, 228-141. Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

Monitor staff
Published: 1/31/2019 5:25:25 PM

An effort to eliminate the use of “buffer zones” outside Planned Parenthood clinics was quashed in the House on Thursday, after lengthy arguments over free speech and privacy.

House Bill 124 would have repealed a law allowing reproductive health clinics like Planned Parenthood to push back protesters up to 25 feet outside entrances to their facilities.

The bill was killed as legislators voted it inexpedient to legislate on the House floor, 228-141.

Presently, no state clinic uses the zones, which were first made legal in 2014, although Planned Parenthood and independent providers have said they’re exploring their options.

Supporters of the law said the zones are necessary to curb intimidation techniques by protesters outside of the clinics. Women entering the clinics, which provide abortions, have been harassed by anti-abortion demonstrators, creating a chilling effect, they said.

“The buffer zone law is a public safety measure for all,” said Rep. Debra Altschiller, a Stratham Democrat.

But advocates of repeal said the zones trample on freedom of speech for demonstrators and prevent them from effectively getting their message through to women seeking abortions that might change their minds.

And while no clinic has put the buffer zones in place, opponents of the law also raised the potential that the first ones to do so could bring about a lawsuit that would cost the state money.

“The day the buffer zone is actually posted, I can guarantee that litigation will ensue, costing us millions, and our citizens will have to foot the bill,” said Rep. Jeanine Notter, Republican of Merrimack.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in McCullen v. Coakley that a Massachusetts law that mandated set buffer zones for all clinics was unconstitutional; opponents of New Hampshire’s law say it invites a similar outcome.

Planned Parenthood advocates have said that New Hampshire’s law significantly differs from Massachusetts’ because it is voluntary and the potential distance is variable “up to” 25 feet, which means the courts may rule differently.

A lawsuit in New Hampshire was thrown out of the U.S. District Court in Concord for lack of standing, with the judge maintaining that a suit against the law couldn’t proceed until a buffer zone was actually established. But advocates and opponents of the measure expect a lawsuit to follow if a clinic moves forward and set a zone up.

On Thursday, both sides presented divergent portraits of the scenes outside the clinics. Rep. Kurt Wuelper, a Strafford Republican, dismissed concern that the protests could lead to violence, claiming the Manchester Planned Parenthood had never had any police incident in 17 years.

“I don’t know how long it takes to show that something is relatively innocuous in terms of law, but 900 weeks appears to be plenty enough,” he said.

But Kayla Montgomery, director of advocacy and organizing at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said the clinics have received plenty of police presence.

“When protest activity is highest, PPNNE pays for a detail police officer to help support patient and staff safety when accessing safe, legal care,” Montgomery said. “Periodically, additional calls to local police must be made.”

And Altschiller sought to highlight acts of violence at clinics across the country, arguing that the intimidation could prevent New Hampshire women from accessing basic health services as well as abortion services. Protestors have no way to distinguish between someone seeking an abortion and someone getting a sexually transmitted infection testing, breast screening or pap smear, she said.

“The presence of this law has in some cases curbed the urge to run right up to women seeking healthcare,” Altschiller said.

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

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