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Top court strikes down Mass. abortion clinic buffer; effect on NH law under scrutiny

State House Bureau

June 26. 2014 8:10PM
Manchester resident Marty Dowd, center, leads informational picketers outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Manchester on Thursday, the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such actions in Massachusetts protected under the First Amendment. (MARK HAYWARD / UNION LEADER)

Political leaders and organizations that support abortion rights voiced optimism Thursday that the New Hampshire abortion-clinic buffer zone law will survive constitutional muster, even though a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar law in Massachusetts.

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who signed the law earlier this month, said her office will review the Thursday decision to see what impact it has in New Hampshire.

“Women should be able to safely access health care and family planning services, and the bipartisan legislation that I signed earlier this month was narrowly tailored, with input from the law enforcement community and municipal officials, to ensure the safety and privacy of patients and the public, while also protecting the right to free speech,” Hassan said.

The Supreme Court ruled that a Massachusetts buffer zone that kept protesters 35 feet from abortion clinics was unconstitutional because it restricts constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.

The New Hampshire law, which goes into effect July 10, establishes a 25-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics. The law allows for flexible buffer zones tailored to the facility, advocates said.

The ruling added a spring to the step of nine people who marched outside Planned Parenthood in Manchester on Thursday. The picketers normally gather there on Thursdays, the day they say abortions take place at the clinic.

“We’re happy, (but) it doesn’t mean they won’t try to go forward with it,” said Cathy Kelley. She offered literature to clinic patients, while others walked on the sidewalk and quietly prayed. A security guard manned the parking lot, and clinic employees watched from inside the glass door.

“Hopefully, this will all just go away. We don’t bother anybody down here, for crying out loud. We help people who want to be helped,” Kelley said.

Jerry Bergevin, a former state representative, was among those praying. He said the buffer zone wouldn’t have stopped the picketing, just moved it across the street.

“The First Amendment is upheld,” he said. “The Constitution, at least with this decision, is intact again.”

The Supreme Court ruled the Massachusetts law is too restrictive when the state has other options to address potential clashes outside clinics and to protect patients from intimidation and interference.

Supporters of New Hampshire’s law have said it addresses some of the issues raised during Supreme Court arguments on Massachusetts’ law.

But an opponent of the Granite State law says it mimics the Bay State’s statute and should not go into effect.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, said the unanimous ruling affirms her concerns about the bill.

“In siding with the plaintiffs in this case, the court has agreed that these buffer zone laws pose an onerous burden to the free speech rights of those who wish to educate, protest, or otherwise exercise their constitutional rights around these facilities,” Carson said.

She noted the court ruled that lawmakers must be mindful of First Amendment rights as they ensure safe and open access to reproductive-health clinics.

The court’s ruling notes that the Massachusetts problems centered on one clinic in Boston; the problems in New Hampshire are limited to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Manchester. She said those issues can be addressed locally.

The Manchester clinic is located on a narrow street in a residential area. The building is just feet from the public sidewalk.

The law’s prime sponsor, Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, said it is too early to determine the impact of the ruling.

New Hampshire lawmakers “crafted a narrow law which is more limited than the Massachusetts law at issue in the decision,” Soucy said.

Jennifer Frizzell, vice president for public policy for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said the New Hampshire law addressed some of the issues argued before the Supreme Court, such as allowing law enforcement and other local officials to work with clinics to craft appropriate buffer zones that fit the neighborhood.

She said the zones restrict all protests and picketing, not just anti-abortion activities.

“New Hampshire’s legislation was narrowly tailored to balance important constitutional rights and differs in significant ways from the Massachusetts law that was struck down in today’s decision,” Frizzell said. “It’s too early to speculate how this will affect access to New Hampshire’s reproductive health facilities.”

She said the decision shows a troubling level of disregard for women who should be able to make private medical decisions without running a gauntlet of harassing and threatening protesters.

Bryan McCormack of Cornerstone Action said New Hampshire’s law is unsupportable.

“Peaceful pro-life witness outside abortion facilities is constitutionally protected and must be respected by law, as Cornerstone has held all along,” he said. “The right to abortion does not trump the First Amendment.”

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