The New Hampshire Senate Health and Human Services committee had to change rooms twice yesterday to find a place with enough seats for the public. About 40 minutes past its scheduled time, the hearing on HB 1570 began, and buffer zone repeal was up for discussion. Will New Hampshire continue to have a law on the books that allows abortion facility operators to determine where and when First Amendment rights may be exercised on public property?
Committee members kept their questions to a minimum, no doubt mindful of the clock. No vote was taken yesterday; action is likely to come soon. There will be a few days’ notice before any Senate floor vote.
In brief, the hearing produced nothing new or shocking. Any information or persuasion that’s going to budge a senator is going to come from private communication. Remember, repeal was tabled after a tie vote in the Senate last year – and remember who voted how.
Here are some notes on this week’s hearing, with my thanks to Jennifer Robidoux who shared her own notes with me after I had to leave the hearing early. This does not mention everyone who testified.
- Committee members present were Andy Sanborn (R-Bedford), Kevin Avard (R-Nashua), Sharon Carson (R-Londonderry), and Martha Fuller Clark (D-Portsmouth). Committee member Molly Kelly (D-Harrisville) was absent. If you wish to contact the committee members to let them know it’s time to pass HB 1570 and get rid of the buffer zone, you should do so soon. Contact information is on the Senate web page. If you send an email, put “yes on HB 1570” or something similar in the subject line.
- There was no organized demonstration of any kind outside the hearing.
- There was no testimony from any municipal or law enforcement official.
- The recent dismissal of the Reddy v. Foster case was mentioned by nearly everyone who testified. Interpretations varied.
- Rep. J.R. Hoell, chief sponsor of the repeal bill, reminded the senators that the House has voted twice for repeal (2015 and 2016). He said the situation of having an unenforced law like the buffer zone on the books was “silliness at best.”
- Cathy Kelley, who is outside Planned Parenthood in Manchester every Thursday and who founded Pennacook Pregnancy Center, supported repeal. She defended her right to pray and to talk to people outside PP. She spoke of offering healing after abortion. “That’s compassion. That’s what we’re about.” Sue Clifton testified for repeal as well, remarking on ministry to abortion workers. “We pray for abortion workers. We love them all and we are there to offer help.”
- Joan Espinola, a plaintiff in Reddy v. Foster, cited both the U.S. and New Hampshire Constitutions to argue for her freedom to be peacefully present outside abortion facilities. “we’re not out to harm anyone….The Constitution doesn’t give protection from unwanted speech.”
- Fellow plaintiff Jennifer Robidoux pointed out that she is already “buffered” from abortion facility clients by private property (e.g. the stockade fence at the Pennacook Street Planned Parenthood); “this law buffers me from public property.”
- Two state representatives strongly opposed to repeal made the claim that any zones, should they be enforced, would respect “local control.” (I have already held forth at some length on that point.)
- Attorney MIchael Tierney, who represented plaintiffs in Reddy v. Foster, told the committee that there are already laws on the books against harassment, blockade, and violence. About that: I’m sure I’m not the only person who wonders why abortion facility managers don’t call on police to enforce those laws – assuming those laws are being violated.
- Senator Donna Soucy (D-Manchester), as she has done since introducing the buffer zone bill in 2014, claimed repeatedly that the New Hampshire buffer zone law is substantively different from the Massachusetts law struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in McCullen v. Coakley, in that the old Massachusetts law set a firm 35-foot zone while the New Hampshire law allows a zone “up to 25 feet.” Senator Soucy makes this claim despite the fact that the Supreme Court did not use zone size as a factor in striking down the Massachusetts law.
- The our-law-is-different-from-Massachusetts claim was also made to the committee by the representative of Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund, Kayla McCarthy. She cited an increased “volume” of protests without giving any details, which she might have submitted to the committee in writing.
- The New Hampshire Medical Society registered its opposition to buffer zone repeal. So did the New Hampshire Public Health Association, whose spokesman said that the buffer zone law “does not impede protesting in a respectful manner.”