CONCORD — A 25-foot buffer zone around buildings where abortions are performed can be established in 30 days, after Gov. Maggie Hassan signed Senate Bill 319 into law Tuesday.
At a bill signing ceremony at the State House, supporters of the new law said it balances the rights of free speech with a patient’s right to privacy and dignity, while allowing an up to 25-foot buffer zone tailored to each facility’s site.
“Women should be able to access critical health services without fearing for their safety, and this bipartisan, common-sense measure will help ensure the safety of patients and the public, while also protecting the rights of free speech and privacy,” said Hassan. “A woman’s right to make her own health care decisions is essential to the economic health of our families.”
Faced with a pending U.S. Supreme Court decision on a similar Massachusetts law, supporters say the bill addresses issues raised before the court, which is expected to soon issue its opinion.
Jennifer Frizzell, vice president for public policy with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said the bill was crafted to allow law enforcement and other local officials to work with clinics to craft appropriate buffer zones that fit the neighborhood, and she noted the zones restrict all protests and picketing, not just those opposed to abortion.
New Hampshire has buffer zones for voting places and funerals, she said, but added that “we don’t know what the Supreme Court will do.”
Senate Bill 319 was sponsored by Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, because of the activities and protests at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England’s center on Pennacook Street in Manchester, but applies to all five abortion clinics in the state.
“While reproductive health centers in New Hampshire have never been free of picketing and protest activity,” Frizzell said, “the past two years have brought a marked increase in the volume of protest activity and the escalating tactics of patient harassment and obstructing access to our facilities, most prominently in Manchester.”
Planned Parenthood representatives have said more than 60 patient complaints have been logged since the beginning of 2013 with some involving local law enforcement. Similar problems have happened at facilities in Concord and Portsmouth.
Bill opponents claim the law restricts First Amendment constitutional rights to free speech. They said as abortion opponents they have a right to express their opinions and offer counseling to women about to enter the facilities.
Cornerstone Action Executive Director Bryan McCormack said Hassan signed a bill that violates the First Amendment for the sake of accommodating the abortion industry.
“Those who stand in silent prayer outside abortion facilities are citizens of New Hampshire,” McCormack said. “By signing SB 319 into law the governor has shown that she does not take into consideration all of her constituents and is willing to take rights from those who oppose her on an issue.”
Soucy said she introduced the bill for some of her constituents who were threatened, harassed and in some cases intimidated as they tried to access health care at the Manchester clinic.
“This bill truly does provide safe access to health care,” Soucy said.
The law becomes effective in 30 days.