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Thursday, February 20, 2014

NH Senate passes 25-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics

CONCORD – A bill to create a 25-foot buffer zone around the entrance, exit and parking lots of abortion clinics easily cleared the state Senate on Wednesday.

Clients and staff at the Planned Parenthood of Northern New England’s five clinics sought the measure, some saying they felt intimidated by anti-abortion activists at weekly protests. ...

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CONCORD – A bill to create a 25-foot buffer zone around the entrance, exit and parking lots of abortion clinics easily cleared the state Senate on Wednesday.

Clients and staff at the Planned Parenthood of Northern New England’s five clinics sought the measure, some saying they felt intimidated by anti-abortion activists at weekly protests.

The 15-9 vote is seen as pivotal since the measure now moves to the House of Representatives, which is even stronger on abortion rights measures than the Senate.

Gov. Maggie Hassan is considered likely to sign this bill if it reaches her desk.

Any violator coming within the buffer zone must first be issued a warning before being cited for a violation that would carry a minimum fine of $100.

“This bill is about a balance, a balance between public safety and free speech,” said Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, the bill’s (SB 319) prime author. Soucy’s district includes Litchfield.

Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, disagreed.

“This is about First Amendment rights, whether you agree with the speech or not,” said Carson, whose district includes Hudson.

The measure is patterned after a 35-foot buffer that exists in Massachusetts state law. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments last month on a challenge to the Massachusetts buffer zone law from abortion opponents who charged it was too restrictive.

The nation’s highest court in 2000 upheld a Colorado law that prohibited anyone from approaching within 8 feet of a person going to or coming out of abortion clinic.

“Some of us believe a court would find this bill unconstitutional. It is premature for us to deal with the question here when the court will rule in the next few months,” said Sen. Sam Cataldo, R-Farmington.

This measure has heavyweight support from both political parties in the Republican-controlled Senate as Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, is a co-sponsor along with Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton.

Ultimately, four Republicans joined all 11 Democrats to pass the bill – among them Sens. Robert Odell, R-Lempster, and John Reagan, R-Deerfield.

Jennifer Frizzell, senior policy adviser for Planned Parenthood, said the House might have the benefit of a Supreme Court decision before it acts on the bill later this spring.

“A woman seeking reproductive health care should not be harassed, obstructed or intimidated by individuals who oppose the decision she has made about her own pregnancy,” Frizzell said.

“A patient safety zone surrounding the entrances to reproductive health centers will ensure the privacy and dignity of patients, while improving public safety in communities where these health centers are located.”

Frizzell said she wasn’t surprised the Senate rejected a delay because of the Supreme Court case.

“This is not a Legislature that has a history of waiting for courts before making policy decisions,” Frizzell said.

Cornerstone Action, a socially conservative interest group, had fought the bill’s passage. Executive Director Bryan McCormack said it was an over-reaction to respectful protests at these clinics.

“Supporters of the bill have failed to prove that silent prayer presents any danger to those entering such facilities,” McCormack said.

The Planned Parenthood clinic on Penacook Street in Manchester is what spawned the bill with similar problems in Concord and Portsmouth.

Soucy said there have been 60 patient complaints since the beginning of 2013 and police have responded to reported incidents of disorderly conduct, obstruction of patient access and trespassing on health center premises.

Rep. Kathleen Souza, R-Manchester, said she’s been one of those protesters and faced her own intimidation with a pellet gun blasting out one of her car’s windows.

Soucy said she will pursue an amendment in the House to ensure that local police have to issue that warning in writing.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).