CONCORD — Supporters of legislation that would require protesters to stay at least 25 feet away from abortion clinics called the issue a matter of public safety, while opponents called it a threat to free speech in a crowded and lengthy House hearing, where testimony echoed statements made at Senate hearings earlier in the year.
The bill cleared the Senate in February on a 15-9 roll call vote, with four Republicans joining all 11 Democrats in favor.
The so-called "buffer zone" legislation, now before the House, was drafted primarily in response to protests at the Planned Parenthood clinic on Penacook Street in Manchester, although it would apply to all clinics in the state. Manchester's two Democratic senators, Donna Soucy and Lou D'Allesandro, were among the co-sponsors of the bill.
More than 40 poeple signed up to testify on Tuesday, as spectators lined the walls in the hearing room at the Legislative Office Building. House Judiciary Chair Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, had to have a temporary wall removed to double the size of the hearing room, which then filled to capacity.
The diverse crowd included families, clergy, women wearing Planned Parenthood T-shirts, and others sporting yellow "Life" stickers.
Soucy told the House panel the bill was introduced at the request of constituents who told her they were challenged, frightened and threatened while trying to access reproductive services at the Manchester clinic.
"It's very narrowly tailored to ensure the entrance and the area around it will be open to traffic," she said. "The voices (of protesters) can still be heard and their signs can still be read."
According to Soucy, the bill addresses concerns raised in a Supreme Court challenge to a 35-foot buffer zone in Massachusetts, with a ruling expected before the end of the current term.
"This is truly needed for safe passage to these facilities," said Soucy, "especially in Concord and Manchester, where they are in densely populated areas. This law will not put a limit on what (protesters) can say or how they can pray."
Greg Salts, who lives across from the Planned Parenthood clinic in Manchester, was there with his wife and 9-year-old daughter to testify against the measure because he fears it would force protesters across the street and onto his doorstep.
Salts and his family concerns were featured in a March 13 "City Matters" column in the New Hampshire Union Leader. He told lawmakers he has not had any problems with pedestrian traffic into the clinic or the protesters, some of whom have rented the apartment next door to use as a staging area.
"Both have a Constitutional right to be there," he said, "But I don't see why one business should be able to dictate where people can stand in the neighborhood. A 25-foot buffer is over-kill."
Many of those testifying against the buffer zone said they participated in protests but were never disruptive or disrespectful.
Sister Mary Rose Reddy of the Daughters of Mary in Rochester said access to patients is critical to the mission of organizations like "40 Days of Life," which claims to have prevented more than 8,000 abortions.
"We have to pledge that we won't harass people and I've never witnessed anyone being harassed," she said. "I believe as an American citizen, I have the right to walk where I want and pray where I want. In the state of New Hampshrie, where our motto is Live Free or Die, I ask you to support our freedom of speech and assembly."
Laura Thibault, executive director of Pro-Choice New Hampshire, said anecdotal accounts of peaceful demonstrations do not eliminate the need for the protective zones at abortion clinics.
She said women attempting to access services at New Hampshire clinics have been victims of "verbal assault, physical obstruction, death threats, anthrax scares and arson."
New Hampshire has abortion clinics in Concord, Greenland, Lebanon, Manchester and Laconia.