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N.H. Republicans pass repeal of abortion clinic ‘buffer zone’

Protesters gathered at the New Hampshire State House on Tuesday evening.
Mara Hoplamazian
Protesters gathered at the New Hampshire State House on Tuesday evening.

Republicans in the New Hampshire Senate late Thursday passed a repeal of a buffer zone around abortion clinics to shield patients from protesters, despite a promised veto by Gov. Chris Sununu.

New Hampshire’s 25-foot buffer zone law was enacted in 2014, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a Massachustts law imposing a 35-foot buffer was unconstitutional. New Hampshire’s law remains on the books, however, because no clinic in the state has ever sought to enforce the buffer zone by putting up signage.

Nevertheless, Senate Republicans voted 12-11 to repeal the statute, arguing it stifled speech and freedom of assembly for those who want to protest or hand out pamphlets outside of clinics.

“Free speech is fundamental to our union, and the current law serves nothing more than to privilege one speech over another,” Sen. Bill Gannon, a Republican, told colleagues.

Democrats opposed the move, arguing it is necessary to protect patients from harassment as they seek legal reproductive health services. Sen. Donna Soucy helped craft the 2014 statute, and said it was designed to pass any constitutional challenge.

“We’re not regulating what people want to say, and we are not regulating what they want to hand out or what signs they want to hold,” said Soucy. “What we want is safety.”

She noted that the state put in place so-called buffer zones around polling places to ensure safe passage to vote, and a 150-foot buffer zone around funeral services.

The measure, which came up for a vote around 10pm Thursday after a marathon session, will now head to the governor’s desk where it faces a likely veto. The bill cleared the House earlier this year on a 168-162 margin, suggesting that supporters of the measure lack a two-thirds majority necessary to override any veto.

During debate on the buffer zone bill, Senate Democrats also sought to amend the bill by adding a statutory right to an abortion in New Hampshire in the wake of the leaked Supreme Court ruling suggesting Roe v. Wade will be overturned. That amendment deadlocked on a 12-12 vote, however, meaning the motion failed, with two Republicans – Sen. Jeb Bradley and Sen. Erin Hennessey – joining all Democrats.

Under current law, abortions are legal in New Hampshire until the 24th week of pregnancy.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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