Not to be left unsaid

A 25-foot "buffer" would force these peaceful witnesses to the residential sidewalk across the street.
Still legal for now: prayer on the sidewalk in Manchester

The bill to repeal New Hampshire’s buffer zone law got a hearing at the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, where I saw many familiar faces and heard many familiar things. When the hearing was over, two important points had gone unmentioned.

Buffer zone supporters, led by Sen. Donna Soucy, tried to establish that New Hampshire’s law is not like the failed Massachusetts law struck down in McCullen, since New Hampshire’s zone is a different size. She must have been hoping no one had read McCullen lately.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court in McCullen v. Coakley:

Petitioners [McCullen et al.] wish to converse with their fellow citizens about an important subject on the public streets and sidewalks—sites that have hosted discussions about the issues of the day throughout history. Respondents assert undeniably significant interests in maintaining public safety on those same streets and sidewalks, as well as in preserving access to adjacent healthcare facilities. But here the Commonwealth [of Massachusetts] has pursued those interests by the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a traditional public forum to all speakers. It has done so without seriously addressing the problem through alternatives that leave the forum open for its time-honored purposes. The Commonwealth may not do that consistent with the First Amendment. 

Nothing in there about a 35-foot zone vs. an up-to-25-foot zone. And remember, New Hampshire’s law lets the abortion facility decide the exact size of the up-to-25-foot zone. Facility managers are encouraged to “consult” with law enforcement and public works, but no town or city may veto a buffer zone under the terms of the New Hampshire law. No wonder a federal judge in Concord granted a restraining order as soon as a challenge to the law reached him.

Something else not mentioned: there is a difference between people who give peaceful witness to their pro-life convictions and people who are violent towards women and men at abortion facilities. Laws controlling the former will not affect the latter.

I wish this could go without saying, but it can’t.

Two buffer zone supporters at the hearing mentioned John Salvi, murderer in 1994 of Lee Ann Nichols and Shannon Lowney, abortion-facility workers in Boston. “Do we have to wait for something heinous to occur?” fretted Senator Bette Lasky, who is clearly ready to vote against the repeal effort.

Wait a minute, ma’am. How is a law written to nullify the First Amendment going to discourage someone with murder in his heart? I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that a buffer zone law wouldn’t have stopped John Salvi.

Of course, if you think someone praying silently on the sidewalk is just as threatening as an armed assailant, then it makes perfect sense to mention a murderer when the First Amendment comes up.

As I listened to the testimony, I thought of my hours in the sidewalk outside PP in Manchester during the recent 40 Days for Life. I was usually there alone at an early hour, before clients started coming. I’d see staff and security arriving for the day. I’d see neighbors going out to work or walking their dogs or going to Rite-Aid. I’d keep walking back and forth, although an attorney had advised me that I could probably stand still without violating any law. I smiled and nodded at people but did not speak up unless someone spoke to me first.

The buffer zone, if allowed to go into force, would make that illegal – without increasing even one woman’s access to health care.

From the tone of the recent hearing, I conclude that buffer zone supporters are ready to abandon last year’s handiwork if they can save face with another law like a bubble zone or a clone of the federal FACE law. They could have sought that a year ago and saved themselves a lot of trouble.

Author: Ellen Kolb

New Hampshire-based writer, pro-life activist, hiker.