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Inside The Buffer Zone: A Look At The N.H. Bill To Keep Abortion Protesters Back

Sara Plourde

  The House Judiciary committee considered a bill Tuesday that would create a 25 foot buffer zone to keep anti-abortion activists clear of abortion clinic entrances. While it’s expected to become law, it may face legal challenges when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a similar law in Massachusetts.

It’s Thursday outside the Pennacook street Planned Parenthood in Manchester and a group of about five people are braving subfreezing temperatures on a windy afternoon. They’re holding signs and rosary beads as patients occasionally cross the sidewalk to enter the building.

“We want to help them not to make this mistake but also to help them to keep or give up their baby for adoption. We don’t just say ‘keep your baby.’ We want to help them.”

Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR
A core group of activists who gather on Pennacook street every Thursday, even if it snowed the night before.

Jean Szulc was the only person protesting without a sign. By her side was Marty Dowd of Manchester. He was holding a rosary.

“It’s our primary mission here, especially on Thursdays, to pray. We’re nonviolent. Our main vehicle, as it were, is prayer because we believe in the power of prayer.”

Thursdays are important to them because it’s the day when the clinic performs most of its abortions. They say they’re out there to offer counsel and hopefully to divert people to a nearby pregnancy center.

 “They’re talking about a buffer zone and it’s a knee-jerk reaction.”

When this bill was on the floor of the state Senate, Republican Sharon Carson of Londonderry said it would be an infringement on free speech.

“Whether you agree with the speech or not, these folks have a right to be there.”

But Carson was in the minority. Those on the prevailing side like Democrat Donna Soucy of Manchester, argued it strikes a reasonable balance.

“Voices can still be heard and signs can still be read.”

Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR
Across the street from the clinic, activists have rented out an apartment and dubbed it the "Prayer for Life Center."

  The clinic in Manchester has been around for more than 12 years, but Jennifer Frizzell with Planned Parenthood New England says since 2012, the scene outside the clinic has been busy and, at times, adversarial.

“We have had as many as 100 protesters on the sidewalk. And then I would say on other days we might just see 10-15 what I might call ‘regular individuals.’”

If the New Hampshire bill becomes law, those individuals will need to stand either 25 feet down the road from the entrance or on the opposite sidewalk. But even if this bill becomes law, it may not be the final word. Robert Barnes covers the Supreme Court for the Washington Post.

“Sidewalks have always been seen to get sort-of special protection in first amendment cases and free speech cases.”

Barnes says a pending case on a similar law in Massachusetts may limit or outright ban such buffer zones. The court has yet to rule, but Barnes watched the justices closely during the oral arguments in January.

“The one person who didn’t ask a question and thus didn’t really show his hand at all, was Chief Justice John Roberts. And after some of the discussions, it seemed to a number of us that he would be the one to make a decision in this case.”

But buffer zone or not, back on Pennacook street, protesters outside of the clinic say they’re not planning on going anywhere.

Before becoming a reporter for NHPR, Ryan devoted many months interning with The Exchange team, helping to produce their daily talk show. He graduated from the University of New Hampshire in Manchester with a major in Politics and Society and a minor in Communication Arts. While in school, he also interned for a DC-based think tank. His interests include science fiction and international relations. Ryan is a life-long Manchester resident.

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