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For N.H. abortion providers, having a buffer zone law is one thing — using it is another

Equality Health Center protest
Alli Fam
/
NHPR
Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed Republicans' latest attempt to repeal New Hampshire's buffer zone law last week. In his veto message, he wrote: "In the eight years since this law was originally enacted, we know of no instance where an individual or group has been harmed by it."

On one recent Friday in Concord, a group of about eight protesters gathered on the sidewalk outside Equality Health Center, holding signs that read “Babies Are Murdered Here” and “Pray to End Abortion.” They were joined by another group of around 10 volunteer clinic escorts, patrolling the sidewalk in rainbow pinnies.

“We're trying to block cameras, block signs,” explained Eileen Ehlers, a longtime clinic volunteer and the self-proclaimed “grandmother of the group.”

Fridays are when Equality Health Center usually offers surgical abortions. Ehlers said she’ll often wrap an arm around patients arriving at the clinic and walk them inside, to protect them from having to engage with the protesters. If protesters are yelling, sometimes she yells back, to drown them out.

“When we didn't engage with them, they got bolder,” Ehlers said. “They owned the airwaves. They got more antagonistic, aggressive, insulting, and demeaning.”

One longtime protester, Patrice, who declined to give her last name to NHPR, said it’s been a while since she’s talked directly with a patient at this clinic, in part due to the heavy escort presence.

“They've gotten pretty intense here,” she said. “This is the most hostile place that we can be. But we're not going to hide our light.”

Since 2014, New Hampshire has had a law on the books meant to keep these kinds of confrontations — between anti-abortion protesters, clinic volunteers and patients — at bay. This “buffer zone” law allows reproductive health centers to create a protest-free zone up to 25 feet around their health clinics.

In the past eight years, the law has faced criticism and legal challenges from those who allege it stifles free speech; a similar measure in Massachusetts was struck down by the Supreme Court.

Republican lawmakers have also repeatedly tried to overturn it. Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed the latest repeal attempt last week, saying that he was unaware of any "instance where an individual or group has been harmed by it."

Equality Health Center Clinic Escorts Protesters
Alli Fam
/
NHPR
Protesters and clinic escorts are a familiar scene outside of Equality Health Center in Concord. Sometimes the two groups clash.

Indeed, it's not clear that New Hampshire's buffer zone law has ever been used — at Equality Health Center or elsewhere.

Dalia Vidunas, Equality Health Center’s executive director, says the challenge has been getting necessary buy-in from local officials. After the state’s buffer zone law first passed, she said she met with the mayor's office, code enforcement officials and local police to figure out how it would work in Concord.

“I had actually ordered the signs, because you have to have signs up,” Vidunas said, “and then we canceled that order. Because the city asks us to wait.”

Not wanting to burn bridges with city officials, Vidunas said she stopped pushing for the buffer zone and took their advice to try other approaches to managing protesters.

“We wanted to be good neighbors,” she said. “We wanted to do what was in the best interest of the community.”

The Concord Police Department, when contacted by NHPR, said they do not enforce buffer zones but would respond to specific incidents of criminal activity. They did not respond to specific questions from NHPR about whether they told the clinic to try other approaches. The mayor did not return NHPR’s request for comment, and the city administrator deferred to the police department’s statement.

In lieu of setting up a buffer zone, Vidunas said Equality Health Center has relied more heavily on clinic escorts to engage directly with protesters, if needed. She also acquired permits that would allow her staff to take up space in front of their facility. With a vendor permit, staff could be on the sidewalk in front of the health center, offering pamphlets and bracelets.

These days, the sidewalk outside of Equality Health Center in Concord is essentially the only place in the state where confrontations between anti-abortion protesters and clinic volunteers are still taking place on a regular basis. Planned Parenthood, which performs abortions in Keene and Manchester, hires a security detail for their clinics and makes it a policy not to engage directly with protesters. Lovering Health Center in Greenland, which also provides abortions, said they don’t use escorts because their long driveway offers a natural buffer.

But in the last few years, Vidunas said escorts and permits haven’t been enough. There’s one newer group of out-of-state protesters, she said, who she describes as particularly large and loud.

Even verbal confrontations, Vidunas said, can harm patients. She remembers one woman who was called a “murderer” and “the mother of a dead baby” on her way inside the clinic last year.

“She walked through our front door, and then she just collapsed in the fetal position and stayed there, sobbing, for 20 minutes,” Vidunas said. “This was a wanted pregnancy… She was having a miscarriage.”

In the last few months, Vidunas said she has been in a holding pattern, waiting to see what would happen to the buffer zone law at the State House. Now that the law appears to be staying in place, she’s hoping to try once again to work with city officials to put it into practice.

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