Notes on NH House buffer zone hearing, SB 319

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on New Hampshire’s “buffer zone” bill this week. SB 319, as readers know by now, seeks to impose a First-Amendment-free zone around abortion facilities. The hearing lasted over three hours, and I was present for all but 45 minutes of it. The committee is scheduled to vote on the bill Wednesday, April 30.

“I don’t understand why a particular business has more to say than I do about who gets to stand in the neighborhood.” – Greg Salts, Manchester resident

Greg Salts lives across the street from Manchester’s Planned Parenthood facility. He and his neighbors learned about SB 319 and its 25-foot “buffer” around abortion facilities when they read the news about Senate passage of the bill. No one had contacted him or anyone else on Penacook Street about this measure that would move prayer witnesses and protesters off of the sidewalk in front of PP and onto the neighbor’s sidewalks. He is not a fan of this legislation. Salts came to the hearing with his daughter, Hannah. She’s studying civics, and her father knows there’s nothing like an actual pending (threatening?) issue to show how government works.

“[SB 319] is about safety and balance.” – Sen. Donna Soucy (D-Manchester), prime sponsor

Soucy went on to say that the 25-foot zone “respects” the First Amendment. She later referred to an amendment she is supporting, which would change the zone to “up to 25 feet,” with the actual distance to be determined locally by some kind of law-enforcement/public works/abortion industry coalition.

Committee member Rep. Robert Rowe (R-Amherst) asked Soucy if she’d be willing to accept a five-foot buffering corridor leading to facility entrances. She replied that the 25-foot zone “was carefully considered” and was “needed.”

The zone would be uniform statewide – except where it wouldn’t …

Fellow sponsor Rep. Candace Bouchard (D-Concord) testified that a statewide buffer zone law would be “uniform” and would let “protesters” (what makes her think she knows that my prayer is a protest?) know what to expect no  matter where in the state they are. She said this in practically the same breath as her endorsement of the amendment. If the size of the zone varies with the decisions or whims of local officials, that ain’t uniform.

…and it would be imposed in a tearing hurry if passed

Bill sponsors acknowledged to the committee that the Supreme Court is pondering the Massachusetts 35-foot buffer zone law, but they did not see that as a reason to delay action in New Hampshire. In fact, the amendment supported by the sponsors would put SB 319 into effect thirty days after passage, which could actually be before the Court announces its decision.

Not asked at the hearing, but I’m curious: does anyone seriously think that if the 35-foot zone is upheld, New Hampshire’s zone would remain at 25 feet? Nope, me neither.

Full house, mostly pro-life & pro-First-Amendment

Fifteen minutes before the hearing began, there was already an overflow crowd. Judiciary Committee chair Marjorie Smith (D-Durham) delayed proceedings slightly so House staff could remove a divider between two rooms, tripling the seating capacity. Good call.

I recognized many pro-life women and men, including some who had taken time off work to be at the hearing. Several state representatives stopped by to sign in on the “blue sheet” before heading to their own committee hearings. A few  women in attendance sported bright pink “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” shirts. (I’ve never seen a faded PP shirt. Does anyone wear one more than once?)

Who defended the First Amendment? Every single person who testified against the bill. Some were people who pray on sidewalks, and some were people who engage in direct ministry to pregnant women. An Anglican priest and a Catholic nun both called on the committee to turn down the bill and its assault on free speech. Some of the testimony came from well-known New Hampshire pro-life activists. Without any coordination or preparation, all these people conveyed a powerful message: quit trying to “buffer” the Constitution.

I missed a chunk of the hearing, but while I was there, fifteen people testified against the bill, while six testified in favor of it. The six included three sponsors, representatives of two abortion providers, and NARAL’s lobbyist.

Police involvement at abortion facilities

[Insert crickets *here*]

Soucy testified that ten police calls were made in 2013 involving the Manchester PP facility. Committee members asked her how many arrests resulted. The answer: none. Jennifer Frizzell of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England testified to the committee about the sixty complaints PP received from its own clients in 2013 about activity outside PP facilities. Resulting arrests: zero.

Speech & prayer & violence

Quick: what’s the difference between a prayer and a bomb? Is it a matter of degree or of kind? I might have heard only six supporters of the bill, but I heard one message from them loud and clear: most of them tried hard to smear peaceful prolife witnesses by linking their behavior with that of vandals, assassins and bombers. Let it be noted that chief sponsor Donna Soucy did not stoop to that tactic as she introduced the bill to the committee.

“Anti-choice intimidation,” claimed Laura Thibault of NARAL Pro-Choice New Hampshire. Quite the catch-all phrase.

I was at the hearing to represent a New Hampshire public policy group, and I submitted written testimony on the group’s behalf. When I was called on, though, I went way off script by challenging the smear directly. I looked at the twenty committee members, feeling as indignant as I ever get at a legislative hearing, and told them that if anyone is comparing me to the man who murdered abortion-facility workers Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols, “you are wrong.” I probably didn’t win any votes with that remark, but I was tired of hearing slander go unchallenged.

Violence at abortion facilities is just as much a threat to prayer witnesses as to abortion workers, by the way – but that wasn’t a point that got much air time at the hearing.

SB 319: “A protection racket for the abortion industry” – Kurt Wuelper, NHRTL

Kurt Wuelper of the New Hampshire Right to Life committee criticized the bill as a political payoff to a favored group. After his impassioned testimony against the bill, including a ringing defense of sidewalk counselors who attempt to communicate with abortion-minded women, he got a question from one of the committee members (and I’m sorry that from my seat I couldn’t see who it was). What about a 14-year-old, pregnant and scared, going in for abortion services? Should she be intimidated? Should she have to face the people on the sidewalk?

(There’s a phrase: “abortion services.” Makes it sound like an oil change.)

Wuelper was undeterred. He asked the representative to think for a minute: a 14-year-old, possibly the survivor of statutory rape? Possibly – no, probably – being taken to the abortion by her rapist? You bet she ought to see people on the sidewalk, Wuelper affirmed. Everyone inside the facility has a financial interest in her abortion.

PP’s lobbyist trotted out the discredited abortion-is-only-3%-of-our-services line. (See Americans United for Life’s scrutiny of that statistic here.) The director of Concord’s Feminist Health Center said sadly that the people on the sidewalk “don’t realize” that most of the people going inside are not there for abortions.

Maybe PP would prefer that people only protest during 3% of their business hours – I don’t know. But abortions are done at PP and the Feminist Health Center and at other places yet to be identified. Abortion is not health care. People take other people’s lives in those places. That’s worth bearing witness to.

Prospects for the bill

The committee vote will be April 30 during the lunch break of the day’s House floor session, so it’s impossible to know the exact time. 11:30 at the earliest and 1:30 at the latest, would be my guess. The vote will be open to the public.

The Judiciary Committee is not a haven for pro-life legislation. A buffer zone speaks directly to the abortion supporters on the committee – but will the First Amendment speak louder? One needn’t be pro-life to understand that SB 319 would violate the rights of people who stand outside in silent prayer. “Not everyone is in ‘silent prayer’,” said the abortion providers at the hearing. True enough. So why haven’t those providers called upon the police to enforce disorderly conduct laws? For that matter – as I’ve seen in Manchester – why don’t they call the police to enforce parking laws? Why are they seeking special-interest legislation that will snare people who are praying silently, when existing laws remain unenforced?

Will the abortion industry get a hearing when the Constitution can’t? I have my suspicions. I hope I’m wrong.

Author: Ellen Kolb

New Hampshire-based writer, activist, hiker.