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May 15. 2014 9:32PM

House approves buffer zone for abortion clinics

CONCORD — A bill to establish a 25-foot buffer zone around facilities where abortions are performed was approved by the House on a 162-100 vote.

Lawmakers spent more than two hours debating the controversial issue and another hour arguing over parliamentary questions, including limiting debate.

Senate Bill 319, sponsored by Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, results from activities and protests at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England’s center on Penacook Street in Manchester, but would apply to the five abortion clinics in the state.

SB 319 seeks to balance conflicting constitutional rights, but opponents and supporters disagreed over whether the bill did that.

Anti-abortion activists and protesters have a constitutional right to free speech and free assembly and the religious freedom to express their beliefs, which the bill would violate, opponents said.

“When we start silencing the opposition because their beliefs are different than ours,” said Rep. Lenette Peterson, R-Merrimack, “we turn our back on the Constitution.”

But supporters said those seeking an abortion have a right to be left alone and not intimidated or harassed when they seek medical treatment.

They maintained the bill does not limit anyone’s free speech or right to assemble, but does protect the privacy and dignity of those seeking an abortion.

“Any patient undergoing a legal procedure should be able to do so without harassment or threat,” said Rep. Thomas Sherman, D-Rye. “Any visit to a doctor is already emotionally charged and intensely personal.”

The House voted down two attempts to expand buffer zones — one to other businesses and one to meat processing facilities.

“If you believe in equal protection, an organization that butchers animals deserves all the same rights as an organization that butchers children,” said Rep. Warren Groen, R-Rochester.

House Majority Leader Stephen Shurtleff, D-Concord, said the two amendments trivialized the real concerns about patient safety addressed in the bill.

The House changed the bill to require facilities to clearly define the buffer zone for local officials, to help with enforcement.

And the House made the bill effective 30 days after it becomes law.

Several speakers urged the House to wait to approve a buffer zone until the U.S. Supreme Court decides on a similar Massachusetts law.

“Why not wait and see what the Supreme Court is going to do?” said Rep. Robert Rowe, R-Amherst. “If we need a new law, we should have a balanced law, which this is not.”

Leon Rideout, R-Lancaster, maintained there is little concrete evidence that the law is needed in New Hampshire.

“If we proceed down the path the radical left wants to take us, where does it end?” Rideout said “Would the State House lawn be a protest-free zone?”

But bill proponents said more than 60 patient complaints have been logged at the Manchester facility since the beginning of 2013, with some involving local law enforcement.

Similar problems have occurred at facilities in Concord and Portsmouth, they said.

“This would separate those who want to exercise their rights to free speech,” said Rep. Charlene Tekesian R-Pelham, “from those who want to exercise their right to be left alone.”

Rep. Pat Long, D-Manchester, is an alderman for Ward 3, where the Planned Parenthood facility is located.

He said he first began receiving calls from residents about the protesters and activists in front of the clinic about seven years ago.

Long said the calls he has made to protesters “always end with ‘What about my rights?’”

“I hear nothing about the rights of those who walk the street to go to work or come home,” Long said.

The bill will have to go back to the Senate because of the changes the House made.

grayno@unionleader.com


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