CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – The New Hampshire House voted Thursday to establish a buffer zone of up to 25 feet around reproductive health facilities where abortions are offered.
The House voted 162-100 after critics argued for hours that the bill singles out a special interest group for protection at the expense of the free speech rights of abortion opponents. The amended bill goes back to the Senate for review.
The Senate bill was filed in response to protests and picket activity at Planned Parenthood’s health center in Manchester. More than 60 patient complaints have been logged since the beginning of 2013, according to bill supporters.
Supporters argued the buffer zone will ensure the privacy and dignity of people using the clinics and will improve public safety. They said the buffer zone still allows protesters to demonstrate.
The House rejected two amendments. One would have expanded the right of any business to have a buffer zone and a second would have added businesses that prepare meat for public consumption. Rep. Warren Groen, the sponsor of the second amendment, said any organization “that butchers animals deserves the same rights as organizations that butcher babies.”
Bill opponents said adequate laws exist to protect patients entering the clinics while the bill proposed curtailing the rights of opponents as well as nearby property owners.
“When we start silencing the opposition just because their beliefs are different than ours, we are turning our backs on the constitution,” Rep. Lenette Peterson, R-Merrimack, said.
But Rep. Charlene Takesian, R-Pelham, said the zone strikes a balance between free speech and privacy rights.
“Individuals should be allowed to walk on a sidewalk without being called a murderer or baby killer. People do have the right to be left alone,” she said.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in January over a 35-foot, protest-free buffer zone outside Massachusetts abortion clinics. A ruling is expected in June.
Nationwide, clinics have dealt with threats and violence, including the 1994 shooting deaths of two employees in Boston-area clinics. Opponents of New Hampshire’s proposed law said the problems experienced elsewhere have not occurred in New Hampshire.
No one has been prosecuted under the 2007 Massachusetts law, which state officials and clinic employees have said has resulted in less congestion outside the clinics. The Supreme Court bars protests on the plaza outside its own building, but allows them on public sidewalks. It last considered abortion clinic protest zones in 2000, when it upheld a Colorado law.
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