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N.H. House approves 25-foot abortion buffer zone

CONCORD, N.H. — The New Hampshire House voted Thursday to establish a buffer zone of up to 25 feet around reproductive health facilities where abortions are offered.

The House voted 162 to 100 after critics argued for hours that the bill singles out a special interest group for protection at the expense of the free speech rights of abortion opponents. The amended bill goes back to the state Senate for review.

The Senate bill was filed in response to protests and picket activity at Planned Parenthood’s health center in Manchester. More than 60 patient complaints have been logged since the beginning of 2013, bill supporters say.

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Supporters argued that the buffer zone will ensure the privacy and dignity of people using the clinics and will improve public safety. They said the buffer zone still allows protesters to demonstrate.

The House rejected two amendments. One would have expanded the right of any business to have a buffer zone, and a second would have added businesses that prepare meat for public consumption. Representative Warren Groen, the sponsor of the second amendment, said any organization ‘‘that butchers animals deserves the same rights as organizations that butcher babies.’’

Bill opponents said adequate laws exist to protect patients entering the clinics, while the bill proposed curtailing the rights of opponents, as well as nearby property owners.

‘‘When we start silencing the opposition just because their beliefs are different than ours, we are turning our backs on the Constitution,’’ Representative Lenette Peterson, Republican of Merrimack, said.

But Representative Charlene Takesian, Republican of Pelham, said the zone strikes a balance between free speech and privacy rights.

‘‘Individuals should be allowed to walk on a sidewalk without being called a murderer or baby killer,’’ she said. “People do have the right to be left alone.”

The US Supreme Court heard arguments in January over a 35-foot, protest-free buffer zone outside Massachusetts abortion clinics. A ruling is expected in June.

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