Update: New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan signed a statewide buffer-zone bill into law on June 10, 2014.
Jennifer Frizzell, senior policy advisor for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, acknowledged in a radio interview this morning that PPNNE is looking into what she calls a “patient safety zone” or “buffer” outside PPNNE’s New Hampshire facilities. She referred specifically to the Manchester office, which she said had seen “increasing amounts of activity, targeting and intimidating clients.” She added, “we’re just having preliminary conversations” about potential city ordinances and state legislation.
Frizzell was a guest on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange, hosted by Laura Knoy. Ashley Pratte, executive director of Cornerstone Policy Research, joined Frizzell and Knoy to discuss “The Shifting Landscape of Abortion Law.” (Program audio here.)
“There was a relatively significant case recently out of Massachusetts where a 35-foot buffer zone to protect patients entering and exiting clinics was upheld through [an] appellate court,” said Frizzell, adding that the court found “appropriate balance of free speech rights of protesters and the need for patients to have safe access, uninterrupted, to get into and out of health care facilities.” PPNNE’s Burlington, Vermont facility has a 35-foot buffer zone as well. Such zones normally prohibit standing, marching, praying, or protesting within a specified distance of an abortion facility.
Manchester’s Planned Parenthood office on Pennacook Street was recently the site of a 40 Days for Life prayer vigil, with up to 150 people at a time praying outside the facility during the campaign that ended on Palm Sunday. Smaller groups of people continue to pray outside the building, placing particular emphasis on Thursdays, when surgical abortions are reportedly performed at the facility (see prayforlifecenter.org).
Rep. Jane Cormier (R-Alton) sponsored an informed consent bill in the New Hampshire House this year. I asked her this afternoon to comment on Frizzell’s remarks, and she quickly asked, “Violation of free speech?” I took her question to a New Hampshire attorney with experience in First Amendment cases. His response was unequivocal: “This [would be] an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of speech and assembly.” He noted that New Hampshire has “lots of great cases” relative to protesters’ First Amendment rights, stemming from the arrests of members of the Clamshell Alliance who protested the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power plant in the 1970s and 1980s.
Catherine Kelley, who prays outside PP’s Manchester office and is one of the organizers of the Pray for Life Center, was equally blunt this afternoon. “We are absolutely opposed to any type of buffer or bubble zone. ‘Live Free or Die’ means we should be free to speak for and about life anywhere and anytime. I knew this was coming when PP got it passed in Vermont.”
Frizzell did not specify with whom these “conversations” about buffer zones are being held. Most buffer zones are enacted through municipal ordinance.