By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Reproductive rights are on the ballot in New Hampshire this year, according to the executive director of one of the state’s oldest health clinics, which was established just after Roe v. Wade was decided.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee, state Senator Dan Feltes of Concord, toured Equality Health Center, formerly the Concord Feminist Health Center, in Concord Wednesday afternoon and heard the concerns of Dalia Vidunas, the center’s executive director.
Not only is she concerned about conservative, anti-choice Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court by Donald Trump and possible future changes to the landmark case, but she also said Gov, Chris Sununu, whom she has invited to tour her facilities and hear her concerns on two occasions has not come and is “inconsistent” in his support for reproductive rights.
The center provides a broad variety of health-care needs for both men and women including abortions, family planning, and for the past eight years LGBTQ services. It also offers behavioral health and options counseling all on a sliding scale basis or in some cases for the homeless and penniless, no charge.
The center employs about 16 and serves as many as 2,500 people per year, about 20 percent men. It has been in the same building since its doors opened immediately after the federal court decision which to this day holds that the Constitution protects a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy without excessive government interference.
There have been picketers over the years. There is a lock on the front door to keep out abusive partners and others, but the primary threat Vidunas now sees to the clinic’s patients is political.
Feltes, who is strongly pro-choice and considers himself a feminist, said Trump’s move to quickly replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Barrett on the high court is an attempt to ensure that Roe v. Wade is revisited at the state level and with Sununu poised to re-appoint Attorney General Gordon MacDonald if he has the votes on a new Executive Council is of concern to him as well.
Sununu, a Republican, maintains that he is pro-choice.
Sununu’s spokesman Ben Vihstadt responded in an email: “No matter how much they lie, the fact remains that Chris Sununu supports a women’s right to choose and would oppose any attempt at the state level to overturn or repeal Roe v Wade. End of story.”
During Gordon MacDonald’s confirmation hearing, AG MacDonald acknowledged that Roe v. Wade is settled law and that he would be bound to follow it, Vihstadt said.
SAS to his health parity veto, Vihstadt said the bill would have jeopardized federal funds. “It is also important to note that the veto did not restrict or limit access to abortion in any way, it merely kept the status quo.
“Every year as governor, Chris Sununu has put forward state contracts for Planned Parenthood. That is a fact,” Vihstadt said.
But Vidunas said what Sununu says and does are not the same and over his years as Executive Councilor and as governor have shown he is certainly not as supportive of her organization and its mission as Feltes.
“Frankly, I would also say (Sununu) is not a feminist at all because he doesn’t practice what he preaches,” Vidunas said. “And also he won’t come to visit us. I have to kind of ask myself, ‘why not?'” she said, noting in 10 years Sununu is the only governor not to accept her invitation to tour and learn about the services the center provides.
She pointed to Sununu’s recent veto of the Reproductive Health Parity Act which would have required commercial and ACA Marketplace insurance plans to cover abortion care if they also cover maternity care.
Feltes noted that Sununu has left open the seat for 17 months to allow for MacDonald, whom he called an anti-choice activist, on to the state Supreme Court as its chief justice.
While the Executive Council voted 3-2 on partisan lines to reject the nomination claiming MacDonald did not have the requisite experience, Feltes said Sununu is just waiting for a new Executive Council.
Sununu has said he supports the right to an abortion but does not support the government paying for it.
As an Executive Councilor, Sununu placed the deciding 3-2 vote to defund Planned Parenthood, though six months later, he agreed to revisit the issue and supported it after finding that the funding did not go to pay for abortions but for many other health services.
That sort of six-month cessation in funding could cripple a health-care center like hers, Vidunas said.
Feltes’ campaign obtained a 2016 email from former gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne, whom they described as an anti-choice activist.
According to the Feltes campaign, “Shortly after winning his primary, Chris called me to discuss his views on a host of conservative issues and specifically asked me to help him understand what pro-life initiatives I thought he could support. As we discussed a number of these issues, he explained his opposition to late-term and partial-birth abortion; his support of conscience rights for health-care workers; his view that the buffer zone law should be repealed; and his belief that abortion providers should be held to the same health and safety standards applicable to healthcare facilities such as ambulatory surgical centers and providers […] I do believe that if elected Chris will indeed advance a constitutional and common-sense pro-life agenda, something that hasn’t happened in NH from the Corner Office in years.” [Email from Ovide Lamontagne, 11/4/16]
Feltes notes that not every person can afford the cost of an abortion if an insurance plan doesn’t cover it.
A 2017 survey from the Federal Reserve found that 40 percent of Americans cannot afford an emergency $400 expense. The average cost of an abortion is $500. And with COVID-19, Granite State families are likely struggling more to pay the bills, he said.
A basic reproductive health-care service to prevent pregnancy such as an IUD placement can cost $800 but with the sliding scale, a family can get that for under $200 if they have high insurance co-pays or no insurance at a clinic.
These are tools that allow people to choose when it is right for them to start a family or add to it, she said.
“Relentless attacks on reproductive rights from the Trump-Pence administration have put patients at risk and Sununu has stood by Trump. During his confirmation hearing, then-Judge Kavanaugh refused to say whether Roe v. Wade was correctly decided. Despite this, Sununu said ‘of course’ he supports Kavanaugh, and his confirmation cemented a 5-4 anti-choice majority on our nation’s highest court,” the Feltes campaign said.
Sununu has not weighed in on the Barrett nomination other than to say the process has been fair. If the Trump Administration has its way, Barrett will be confirmed by the Republican-led U.S. Senate before the election.
“Some extreme Republicans in states across the country are trying to pass abortion bans and the Supreme Court, with its new anti-choice majority, could uphold these bans and in effect overturn Roe v. Wade. Reversing Roe v. Wade would be catastrophic for the patients I serve and for all women,” the campaign said.
Feltes said that when Sununu took that vote to defund Planned Parenthood, it jeopardized the health care of 12,000 Granite Staters.
“Politicians shouldn’t insert themselves into reproductive health decisions that should be between a doctor and her patients. As a result of Sununu bringing politics into women’s health, Planned Parenthood had to reduce office hours, with some patients having to wait weeks to receive care because of the decreased services,” he said.
Vidunas thanked Feltes for always supporting community health and notifying her if there were bills going through the statehouse which would directly impact her clients.
She said she is too busy running a clinic to be trying to keep up with legislative bills and Feltes has always had her back on that.
“Health care is really put on the back of women when it is a…societal issue,” she said.
“This is not just a ‘women’s issue’ and as a society, we have not grasped it that way and we have pigeon-holed it,” Vidunas said. “One of the wonderful things you have done is realize this in all aspects and I have always appreciated that, very very much,” she said to Feltes.
“I have worked hard to make sure my patients can make the healthiest choices for themselves and their families. With Roe in peril right now, we need leaders who are willing to stand up to reproductive health care, not restrict access like Chris Sununu. It’s time for a change. Granite State women need a champion in the corner office who will expand and protect our reproductive rights,” she said.