By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The issue of abortion is again in front of the New Hampshire legislature with five bills heard this week before the House Judiciary Committee, all sponsored by Republicans who now control both the House and Senate.
One bill that would place into state law a ban on publicly funded abortions was the subject of considerable debate Wednesday. House Bill 434 would essentially place the federal Hyde Amendment that prohibits federal funding for abortions (with the exception of incest or rape or when the woman’s life is in danger) into state law.
Opponents said it would not only negatively impact women of modest means from accessing the health-care they need but also serve as an effective gag order because it would prohibit information about abortions being disseminated at publicly funded clinics like the health services center at the University of New Hampshire.
Olivia Balabanis, a student at UNH said HB 434 is “an extreme bill” impacting the UNH Health and Wellness Center.
Students are already facing a difficult time with COVID-19 accessing health care and HB 434 would impact the trust between their health-care providers.
Some supporters argued it would not be a gag rule per se, and the bill is in fact necessary because many citizens do not want their tax dollars spent on abortions and they worry that the Hyde Amendment could fall under future challenges from the Democrats and the Biden Administration.
Ian Huyett of Cornerstone Action said HB 434 should be supported and argued that the bill does not place a gag order on anyone.
Dr. Julia Mead, a medical doctor OB/GYN opposed HB 434.
State insurance already does not cover abortion care, she noted. Women in this state have to use private insurance or pay out of pocket to obtain an abortion.
For the state government to step into the room with the doctor and patient is wrong, she said.
Also heard Wednesday was HB 596 which is similar to HB 434 but would also establish the New Hampshire foster care and adoption initiative fund.
Other bills heard this week by the committee would ban late-term abortions.
They are HB 622, HB 625, and another bill that would repeal the state’s reproductive health center buffer zone law limiting protesters from the doorways of such centers, HB 430.
Planned Parenthood of New Hampshire called those “cruel bills” that target patients and doctors by banning abortion later in pregnancy.
On HB 434, there were 451 who registered in support of the bill and 885 who registered their opposition.
Opponents said the bill is not necessary as the state does not allow public funds to be used for abortion now.
The sponsor, Rep. Vanessa Sheehan, R-Milford, said her bill prohibits direct funding of abortions except when the mother’s life is in danger.
“It is a housekeeping state matter and not a challenge,” she said. This would not prohibit organizations like Planned Parenthood from receiving funds for other procedures, she noted.
State Rep. Frederick Plett, R-Goffstown, said his bill, HB 596, goes a little further in creating a fund for adoption, but there may be some legal issues in his bill and he said he would let the Judiciary Committee decide.
State Rep. Joe Alexander, R-Goffstown, asked if there was a fine or penalty in Plett’s bill and he said yes there would be a fine for using federal money for abortions.
Sheehan said with her bill, she would not entertain an amendment to levy a fine. State Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka, D-Stratham, voiced opposition to HB 434.
“Now is a time to be expanding our access to health care,” in a pandemic, and not limiting it particularly for low-income individuals. She said abortion is an extremely complex decision and no one should face political barriers.
“We do not need politicians in the room,” she said. It is something to be left to the individual and her medical provider.
Elizabeth Canada of Exeter, advocacy manager for Planned Parenthood, also focused on HB 434. She asked the committee to kill it.
Canada said patients seeking an abortion must already pay out of pocket or use their own private health insurance but this bill would put a gag rule on public colleges like UNH from providing all options including referrals for abortion care.
Rep. Maureen Mooney, R-Merrimack, co-sponsor HB 434, said the bill places current practice into law. She said the state is one of 15 states with no such law and the bill “clarifies the issue.”
Rep. Amanda Elizabeth Toll, D-Keene, opposed HB 434. As a teenager, she said she had an unplanned pregnancy and despite the fact that her family was one of means, she faced barriers to access to care.
Ultimately, Toll said she did get an abortion, which allowed her to go to college, graduate school and “allowed me to have when I was ready, a child who is now six…I am leading the life I wanted to be leading,” rather than being forced to have a child when she was not ready.
Melissa May said if the legislators don’t pass these bills “you are guilty of murder.”
May said women who have abortions regret it. “It is not just our bodies…there is a person involved,” May said referring to the fetus. “We need to educate girls.”
Jason Hennessey of Amherst, president of NH Right To Life, supported both bills on the prohibition of public funding for abortions saying it is “completely against our moral beliefs.”
Jake Berry, vice president of policy for New Futures which works to help New Hampshire individuals access reproductive care, said the bills are redundant and unnecessary.
Berry said HB 434 would allow for a gag rule that would threaten to undermine healthcare to families.
Thomas Walton, president of two companies in southern New Hampshire which he did not identify, said if he had to do it over again he would not start a business in New Hampshire because the total fertility rate is now among the lowest in the country.
“How is a company supposed to get their future employees?” he asked. “We need to improve our fertility rate. It’s killing us.”
State Rep. Walt Stapleton R-Claremont, supported HB 434, arguing the state has a lawful interest in protecting life, and the unborn, its future citizens.
HB 596 is especially interesting, he said, because it fosters adoption.
State Rep. Travis O’Hara, R-Laconia, said years ago he and his teenage girlfriend faced an unexpected pregnancy. Now, he said he has a daughter and is a small business owner. “Having an unplanned child does not mean your life is over,” he said.
Leah Cohen of Moultonborough said she was not planning to testify but after listening on Zoom said she needed to say “abortion is health care. It is not an opinion, it is an indisputable fact.”
She urged legislators to focus on making health care more accessible for the vulnerable people the legislature was elected to serve.
Dr. Christine Arsnow, vice president of the NH Pediatric Society, testified in opposition to the bills Wednesday. She said the bills were also opposed by the NH Medical Society, the New Hampshire Medical Association, and others.
She said teens are sexually active and they need access to emergency medical care. Abortion, she said, must be available, affordable, and between a patient and her doctor, not the state.
State Rep. Maria Perez, D-Milford, said she was a victim of sexual assault and listening to men talk about women’s bodies was upsetting. “Don’t do that to us,” Perez said.
A copy of the bills as presented and their sponsors are here.
HB 434 prohibiting public funds for abortions and sponsored by state Rep. Vanessa Sheehan, R-Milford is here http://gencourt.state.nh.us/bill_status/billText.aspx?sy=2021&id=599&txtFormat=html
HB 596 also prohibits public funds for abortion and establishing a fund for foster and adoption initiatives, sponsored by state Rep. Plett, R-Goffstown, http://gencourt.state.nh.us/bill_status/billText.aspx?sy=2021&id=599&txtFormat=html
HB 430 eliminating the health center buffer zone and sponsored by State Rep. Niki Kelsey, R-Bedford is http://gencourt.state.nh.us/bill_status/billText.aspx?sy=2021&id=562&txtFormat=html
HB 622 which would ban abortion later in pregnancy and sponsor by state Rep. Walt Stapleton, R-Claremont is here http://gencourt.state.nh.us/bill_status/billText.aspx?sy=2021&id=761&txtFormat=html
HB 625 also banning late-term abortions and sponsored by state Rep. Beth Folsom, R-Wentworth is here http://gencourt.state.nh.us/bill_status/billText.aspx?sy=2021&id=519&txtFormat=html