By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – On partisan lines, two bills related to abortion protections were voted down in the state Senate Thursday 14-10 with all Republicans opposing the legislation.
House Bill 88, which would give an affirmative right to an abortion up to 24 weeks in New Hampshire, and House Bill 224 to remove the civil and criminal penalties for doctors who perform the procedure after 24 weeks were voted down.
New Hampshire is one of 23 states with penalties for doctors performing late-term abortions, said Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry putting us “right in the middle” of the country.
The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that heard hours of testimony, Carson urged the bill related to decriminalization of doctors be killed.
Sen. Daryl Abbas, R-Salem, said it comes down to enforceability of the state’s new abortion ban after 24 weeks.
But Sen. Suzanne Prentiss, D-Lebanon, said the new law affects women who want to have children more than doctors who perform the procedure.
She said she represents the Upper Valley, which is the home to Dartmouth Health and its affiliates which serves the medical interest of the entire state and where high-risk practices are often taken.
Prentiss said recruiting efforts to New Hampshire have been hampered.
She brought in data from Idaho, which has had similar criminalization of doctors. She said a coalition for safe reproductive healthcare there conducted a survey which found a majority of doctors were considering leaving, impacting the availability of rural, maternal health services in the coming years.
“I am extremely concerned about the decline of OB/GYns,” she said. “Why come to New Hampshire and face criminalization?” Prentiss said.
It can also impact young families coming to New Hampshire who are looking for maternal care.
She said she could offer an enforcement provision by amending the bill noting the state has the right to suspend medical licenses.
She said she would offer an amendment to that effect.
“I have a mission,” Prentiss said. “I want to build a prosperous more inclusive state,” she said “and that means young families who want obstetrical care when they want to grow.”
Sen. William Gannon, R-Sandown, who is hospitalized and appeared and voted by video, said it was his understanding the law only impacts a small number of doctors who do perform late-term abortions.
Carson said hospitals are not making money on hospital wards because women are not having children and that is the reason why the state is seeing those wards close and it is losing such doctors.
She said she believed the conversation will continue.
Sen. Shannon Chandley, D-Amherst said the consequences of penalties are “myriad and certainly will include those who are unintended.”
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, said he looked at his watch and it said, “Achieve the honorable.”
He said it’s hard to get a doctor in New Hampshire right now.
“Doctors are leaving in droves…try to get a family physician to pick you up,” he said.
“What do we do? Punish them for taking care of us and for doing the best they can. That doesn’t sound like the honorable thing to do.”
Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, also rose in opposition to the motion to kill the bill.
“We have seen what happens when we don’t listen to New Hampshire women,” she said noting that there were warnings prior to the Dobbs decision and the fall of Roe v. Wade.
Leaving these criminal penalties in place sends a message that, “We as a state believe that a decision between a woman and their doctor could potentially be criminal.”
“Send the right message,” Soucy urged.
But Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua, supported the measure.
“I believe that a baby from conception is a human being,” he said. “Her own thumbprints, the color of her eyes…I believe she is a living soul created in the image of God.”
He said all he was asking for is “is after 24 weeks we can at least give this child the opportunity for life…I have to speak up with the children.”
AFFIRMATIVE ABORTION PROTECTION
House Bill 88 which would affirmatively protect abortion under the current laws and passed the House 199-185 on March 23 as did House Bill 224 which would decriminalize the procedure on a vote of 205-178.
Carson, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee which heard many hours of testimony on both bills last week, recommended HB 88 be killed, saying it would not make a meaningful difference in our state.
“Abortion is legal in New Hampshire up until the 24 weeks,” she said “and anyone who says differently is misleading the women of this state.”
She said the fetal life protection act gave women those rights up to 24 weeks.
“What we do have is a ban on late-term abortion which is what a majority of the citizens support,” Carson said and in that case, there are also exceptions in the case of fatal fetal anomalies.
She said confusion is being sown and without a Constitutional Amendment in the United States it will be an issue that comes up every few years. She urged the federal delegation to get involved.
“This is not needed,” she said.
Sen. Becky Whitley, D-Hopkinton, said, “Assuming we all agree, what is the harm of enumerating that?”
Sen. Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham also spoke, urging fellow Senators to pass the bill.
“Words matter,” she said. She quoted from the new state’s fetal life protection act, passed as part of the last budget almost two years ago that “nothing in this subdivision shall be construed as creating or recognizing a right to abortion.”
She said the affirmation needs to be in the law to clarify that there is a right.
This all comes following the Dobbs decision, which the U.S. Supreme Court used to strike down the national right to abortion under Roe V. Wade last summer after almost 50 years.
It sent the issue of abortion back to the states to decide individually.
Altschiller said polls have shown 72 percent of residents support abortion rights.
She said the law now “is negated by the silence” and the state needs an affirmative right expressed in law, necessitating this bill.
Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka, D-Portsmouth, now 22 weeks pregnant with her second child, said the bill would be making a clear and strong statement to the nation that “we will protect access to abortion.”
She noted bipartisan support from the House and an indication the governor would support it.
The Dobbs decision decimated the rights of women, she said.
“Even in a blink of an eye,” she said, “so much has changed…the waves are shifting against us.”
“Stand with the women of our state and pass this legislation,” she said.
Sen. Shannon Chandley, D-Amherst, also asked to vote down the motion to kill the bill.
Prior to 1973, the availability of abortion was not decided before Roe v. Wade.
The 7-2 decision in 1973 was guaranteeing it under the constitution.
“Women could make their own decision…with their bodies. Their right to bodily autonomy was recognized.
But that landscape shifted a year ago.
“We must pass HB 88.”
“Is this the era we want to return to?” prior to Roe, she asked.
Abbas asked Altschiller about the reference in the bill to “all individuals” rather than women.
Women are people and women are individuals, she said and if he was worried about men’s access to abortion he should draw up legislation.
Abbas said he rose in support of the recommendation to kill the bill.
“I hear about the confusion,” he said. “If you read the fetal protection act it is very clear,” and he said the confusion comes from political rhetoric.
Whitley said it is important to put this in writing.
“We are in a crisis in our country on abortion,” she stressed.
Since Roe was overturned, she said the body had not taken one single, proactive step to reassure women that the state will not further action to protect their rights.
“Granite Staters want action,” she said.
“Access in a lack of restrictions does not equal an affirmative right,” Whitley said.