By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
LEBANON – The state’s new abortion ban is not the same as Massachusetts and New York as Gov. Chris Sununu contends because New Hampshire’s law criminalizes doctors for providing such a service after 24 weeks of pregnancy except to save the woman’s life.
That leaves doctors here liable for up to seven years in jail and a $100,000 fine, according to noted obstetrician Dr. Barry Smith.
Smith, now retired from a long career at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, said those states “smartly or intentionally excluded the health-care providers from any legal penalties such as fines or imprisonment. That is a huge difference.”
Smith was speaking at a roundtable discussion of healthcare professionals convened by Sununu’s Democratic opponent, Dr. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, at River Valley Community College in Lebanon.
When Sununu said that it was the same as Massachusetts or New York, “That is as far from the truth as possible. And that huge statement is why I don’t think he either read or chose to ignore the difference,” Smith said.
Sununu has maintained he is pro-choice and that the average person supports limits on abortion in the last stages of pregnancy. He said he did not support all the conditions included in the bill, which was made part of the biennial budget which he did not want to veto.
On Good Morning NH with Jack Heath Tuesday, Sununu said, “The fact that Democrats are tripling down on the abortion issue is actually highlighting their extremism.”
Sununu said despite Roe v. Wade being struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, “Nothing changes in New Hampshire…”
“The fact that they have owned they are OK with folks having abortions right up until the moment of birth, that’s extreme…They have to own that extremism. If anything it’s a failing message,” Sununu said.
Sununu didn’t respond to an InDepthNH.org request for additional comment.
In a news release after Sununu’s remarks, Planned Parenthood accused Sununu of repeating false and inflammatory national rhetoric to distract voters from his anti-abortion record.
Kayla Montgomery, vice president of Public Affairs for Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund said:
“This inflammatory and false rhetoric is used to try to distract voters from anti-abortion politicians’ abysmal reproductive health records by peddling falsehoods about abortion care later in pregnancy.
“No one is OK with abortion ‘up until the moment of birth’ because it simply doesn’t exist – that’s not how medicine, science, or pregnancy works,” Montgomery said.
When abortion is needed later in pregnancy it’s due to complex situations like the health of the woman or the fetus, she said.
At the roundtable, Sherman, a gastroenterologist for 30 years, said in states with similar laws, doctors are fearful and looking behind them to see if they are running afoul of these abortion laws and have to wait until the woman is septic, anemic and has lost tremendous amounts of blood before doctors feel assured they can save her life.
Then the “team” instead of medical providers are legal advisors.
“Then, the ‘team’ becomes the defense attorney, the malpractice attorney, the doctor and where does the woman fit into all this?
“It is a critical decision that takes into account the intensely personal decision-making of the woman, the patient, which you point out are kind of forgotten in the Sununu abortion ban process,” Sherman said.
Sherman said doctors live their whole careers with the threat of malpractice.
“We follow best practices. But what does this (new law) mean for your practice? This could be a slippery slope….
“Another big concern is once you criminalize a medical procedure what’s next? Is it trans surgery?” Sherman said.
Smith said the new state abortion law is completely unnecessary, creates a problem where one did not exist in maintaining collaborative medicine in rural New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, and completely ignores the woman who is pregnant, and her mental health and physical health needs.
Smith said about nine or 10 hospitals in New Hampshire have closed their maternity wards.
That was before the ban took effect on Jan. 1 and likely a financial decision as they were never big money makers but were perceived as creating customer loyalty in a community, which has disappeared in a new world of medical care.
Smith said there are currently seven maternal-fetal physicians in New Hampshire and four of them are expecting to retire in the next year or two.
“Recruitment to get replacements for those is going to be impossible when you factor in that Vermont has a law that protects physicians, Maine protects physicians and we are sitting the middle dealing with a third to a half of patients that are coming from Vermont,” to DHMC, Smith said.
The 20 or so at Dartmouth Medical School studying to be OB/GYN specialists are looking to other states without such laws, said those participating in the roundtable.
Others participating, including Dr. Don Kollish, assistant professor of Medicine at Dartmouth’s Geisel School, said he fears the law will create areas with no maternal health care providers at all and no one to call for help, particularly in rural parts of the region.
Panelists said they fear the return to the days prior to the 1970s when poor women were injured, sterilized or in some cases died from “back alley abortions.”
Dr. Peter Mason, assistant professor of community and family medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, said: “I never want to go back to that period. It’s clear that even with the ban, abortions are going to take place. I don’t think a lot of people understand that. I don’t think that our governor understands that there will be abortions after 24 weeks and they will be done illegally in this state and women will be hurt as a result of that.”