Buffer this: SB 319 meets strong opposition at Senate hearing

Today’s civics lesson: show up.

New Hampshire’s buffer zone bill has seven sponsors, and approval in the full Senate is all but certain. That didn’t stop a room full of people from turning out for Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on SB 319.

Whatever the committee recommends when it votes on the bill next week, I expect that the full Senate will pass it, with all the Democrats supporting it along with three Republicans. Then we get to do it all over again in the House. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

According to my notes, 17 of the 25 people who testified aloud on Tuesday opposed the bill. There were many supporters of the bill who chose not to testify aloud but who might have submitted written testimony. In any case, I think that the committee members – including the bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Donna Soucy (D-Manchester) – were surprised at how many opponents of the bill kept coming to the microphone.

Committee chair Sen. Sharon Carson and her colleagues were courteous to all comers during the two-and-a-half hour hearing. When House committee hearings run that long, courtesy sometimes runs a bit thin. Not naming names here.

So what were the main threads of the arguments?

reasons for keeping people 25 feet from abortion facilities:

“This is all about public safety and balance” (Sen. Soucy). Safety issue and patient privacy (Sen. Stiles). Safety (Rep. Bouchard). “Patients routinely complain of verbal harassment” (Jennifer Frizzell, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England). “There have been 6000 incidents of violence” (Sara Persechino, NARAL Pro-Choice NH). Fear of physical confrontation and intimidation (Raye-Ellen Douville, a PPNNE volunteer “greeter”).

About that claim of 6000 incidents: Sen. Sam Cataldo (R-Farmington) asked Ms. Persechino where those incidents occurred. Nationwide, she said. Any in NH? No. And who collected the figures? “The Guttmacher Institute and NARAL.”


By far the most compelling testimony in favor of revoking the First Amendment within 25 feet of abortion facilities came from a post-abortive woman named Barbara. (I’ll withhold her last name for now, although she gave it at the hearing.) She had an abortion at the Feminist Health Center in Concord some time ago. The verbal harassment she described from anti-abortion people outside the Center made me cringe. She has never forgotten it. That is her only image of what opposition to abortion looks like.

(And this is one reason why I promote 40 Days for Life whenever I can. But more about that shortly.)

reasons to abandon the idea:

It would interfere with peaceful sidewalk counselors who seek to make information available to abortion-minded women (Rep. Souza). Constitutional issues (Rep. Cormier, Meredith Cook of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester, Michael Tierney among others). “Either you have freedom of speech or you do not” (Hannah Howard). There is no violence occurring in NH (several speakers).

Several people who pray outside PPNNE’s Manchester office came to the hearing, stayed for the duration, and testified to their experiences.

twenty-five feet, the proposed “buffer” distance

Frizzell’s presentation included a measurement of 25 feet, using a tape measure and the center aisle of the hearing room, apparently intending to show that 25 feet is really not such a long way. Cook responded in her testimony that where some New Hampshire abortion facilities are located, 25 feet means the middle of the adjacent street – and so as a practical matter, the “buffer” would extend well beyond the distance specified in the bill.

I noticed something similar when I measured distances around the Feminist Health Center in Concord a few months back.

a prayer is a sign is a conversation is intimidation is violence … or something like that?!

I heard nothing today to make me think supporters of the bill draw any distinctions between violence and nonviolence or between silent witness and active engagement. The buffer zone would criminalize silent prayer within 25 feet of an abortion facility, because the presence of a praying person might cause “fear and intimidation.” Rep. Bouchard – who I’m happy to say managed to get through her testimony without saying “anti-choice” even once – said that legislators should be pro-active and impose a buffer before violence happens. Like some of her colleagues, she spoke of how the proposed buffer zone represents “balance” of rights.

Treating silent prayer as a threat of violence doesn’t balance anything.

how I got people mad without trying

I reported on each speaker, from both sides of the issue, as I live-tweeted the hearing. I quoted one of the Manchester women opposed to the bill, who said of her sidewalk counseling “our mission is one of love and charity.” Shortly, my Twitter feed all but exploded as someone identified as @clinicescort posted this, taking issue with claims of “love and charity”:

(Not a New Hampshire resident, for what that’s worth; the Twitter profile indicates mid-Atlantic.)

When I first saw the tweet, I wondered what I was going to see when I clicked on the link to the photo: evidence of assault? a bombing? No. Instead, the photo was of abortion opponents bearing a large image of aborted babies fetal remains products of conception. A bloody mess. A part of the awful truth. And certainly not charitable. The photo bore no location and no date.

As it happens, the woman who described her mission as one of love and charity does not use such images.

a few parting thoughts

The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union missed the party, although it’s likely the group submitted written testimony. In his own testimony, buffer zone opponent Michael Tierney pointed out that NHCLU is opposing an anti-panhandling effort in Rochester, New Hampshire on the grounds that it abridges free speech by proscribing certain conduct. Does that concern apply outside abortion facilities?

Do I think it’s worth contacting one’s state senator about SB 319? Yes. Never let your representatives say you weren’t heard from.

Jen Robidoux, who has worked with 40DFL in Manchester, testified about the peaceful, prayerful nature of 40DFL and the written commitment to nonviolent behavior that all participants must sign. This was important for the committee to hear after PPNNE’s testimony that “marathon 40-day efforts” have “escalated” recently. The “escalation” is in numbers, not criminal or threatening activity.

And all the while, the U.S. Supreme Court is mulling over the Massachusetts buffer zone.

4 thoughts on “Buffer this: SB 319 meets strong opposition at Senate hearing

  1. I spoke at the hearing in support. Those in opposition tried to make a hearing held on a safety measure outside of health centres be about abortion. I tried to bring it back to what is a legitimate safety issue.

    It was quite dismaying to see many act as if people are not harassed. The picture painted was of quiet encouragement of another possibility, and I know from a year and a half of experience that was quite distant from the truth of what goes on. Yes, a lot of protesters actually say nothing, they pray for an hour and leave. But there is a consistent group outside the clinics who are there all day. Many of them do harass and yell unkind things (I’ve been called baby killer and murderer from 60 feet away, easily heard.) I’ve been challenged over how I’ll answer to God (for helping young women.) Ironically, I took that as a compliment.

    Twenty five feet is not far, it’s shorter than most believe. It just might save someone from injury, whether a patient, protester, or one of the many children brought there.

    1. Nelle, I’m glad you wrote. I will not defend harassment and abusive language outside an abortion facility any more than I’ll defend the taking of human life inside the facility. I’ve learned a lot from friends and colleagues who used to work or volunteer at abortion facilities. None of them were moved to leave the industry by being called baby killers.

      What you and I seem to agree on, though, is that as you say “a lot of protesters actually say nothing, they pray for an hour and leave.” By passing a law that makes such activity illegal within 25 feet of a facility, the law would essentially equate silent prayer with abusive and threatening behavior. Those aren’t two points on a continuum, as though the former inevitably leads to the latter.

      I understand that your concern is about safety. I believe that peaceful protest and safety can coexist.

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