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July 04. 2014 7:23PM

Abortion buffer-zone law awaits Thursday, when it goes on the books

MANCHESTER — Advocates for a buffer zone around New Hampshire abortion clinics said they are still studying the impact of last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a similar — but not identical — buffer zone law in Massachusetts.

It’s not likely an interpretation will be finished and administrative hoops cleared before Thursday, when the New Hampshire law (click here to view the law's text) goes on the books, said Jennifer Frizzell, vice president for public policy for Planned Parenthood for Northern New England.

The date is on a Thursday, the day each week that anti-abortion activists picket the Planned Parenthood clinic located in a Manchester neighborhood.

“Our law is different from the Massachusetts statute, and the attorney general is continuing to review it,” said William Hinkle, a spokesman for Gov. Maggie Hassan, who signed the bill into law in June.

“Bipartisan majorities of the New Hampshire House and Senate believed we needed to take action to ensure that women could access health care free from harassment or obstruction. Governor Hassan will continue to work toward meeting that goal,” he said.

Pro-life activists, buoyed by the unanimous decision, said their lawyer will defend anyone cited for violating a buffer zone.

“He is ready to go to court if they try to do anything to stop us from using that sidewalk,” said Kathy Souza, a former board member of New Hampshire Right to Life and a state representative. “I think they would be pretty dumb if they were to try to enforce it.”

The New Hampshire law calls for a 25-foot buffer zone, where the Massachusetts law called for a 35-foot zone. The New Hampshire law also requires clinic representatives to consult with local officials and police before placing signs that delineate a “Patient Safety Zone” and specifically prohibit congregating, patrolling, picketing or demonstrating.

Anyone who violates the zone is subject to a minimum civil fine of $100, but only after given a warning by police. The law also allows prosecutors to bring injunctive relief to prevent further violations.

Frizzell said Planned Parenthood is still reviewing the law in light of the Supreme Court ruling. After that, Planned Parenthood would then have to approach the Manchester Police Department to work out details. Police spokesman Lt. James Soucy said last week no such overtures have been made.

During debate on the law this year, advocates for the buffer zone was needed solely for the Manchester clinic. Souza points out that the Supreme Court ruling notes that was the case in Massachusetts, which sought to restrict protests around the Boston clinic.

The justices said other actions could have been taken, and Souza said that reasoning also applies to Manchester. If necessary, police can enforce laws against blocking entrances to business, and laws prohibiting assault, threatening or harrassment, she said.

mhayward@unionleader.com


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