In a 3-2 party-line vote Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill banning nearly all abortions after 24 weeks, even in the case of rape or incest. It is at least the sixth such abortion restriction bill introduced in the last 10 years and the only one to reach the Senate. Three prior attempts failed in the House with help from Republicans.
“I think that this bill … is extreme,” said Sen. Becky Whitley, a Hopkinton Democrat. “And I think it will really harm our families. … And it’s also extreme because it criminalizes doctors.” Whitley noted the lack of a rape or incest exception: “I mean, that takes my breath away.”
House Bill 625 would ban abortions after 24 weeks except when the mother’s life is at risk. Medical providers who testified at the bill’s House and Senate public hearings said abortions at that point in pregnancy are extremely rare. The state’s three main abortion providers do not provide abortions beyond 15 weeks and six days after the start of a woman’s menstrual cycle.
Under the bill, medical providers who peform an abortion after 24 weeks could face 3½ to 5 years in prison and a fine of at least $10,000 and up to $100,000.
If it passes the Senate, all eyes will be on Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican who has described himself as pro-choice but has a mixed voting record on abortion. During his time on the Executive Council, Sununu voted both for and against federal contracts with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. His no vote came just before he announced his run for governor. He has not said whether he’d sign the legislation.
Prior to voting for the bill in Tuesday’s committee meeting, Sen. Harold French, a Franklin Republican, said 24 weeks is a “modest goal for us to reach on a very divisive issue.” Sen. William Gannon, a Sandown Republican, said a 24-week ban would be in line with 43 other states that ban abortion at a specific point during pregnancy. Sen. Jay Kahn, a Keene Democrat, joined Whitley in opposing the bill. “This is a matter of access, it’s a matter of personal choice, and it’s a matter of professional judgment,” he said. “And so I side with each of those.”
The committee also voted, 3-2, to hold onto House Bill 233 to further work on it. The bill would prohibit the denial of “nourishment” to a child after it is born, including during an abortion. With a June 3 Senate deadline to act on all House bills, a vote is unlikely this session but could happen early next year. The majority included French and Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican, who last year voted against defeating a very similar “born-alive” bill. Whitley was among the no votes, saying it seeks to solve a problem that does not exist: “It (says) our medical community is leaving infants to die and that’s not true, and it’s incredibly dangerous to even reinforce that narrative.”
New Hampshire is considered one of the least restrictive states when it comes to abortion. The state currently has two laws limiting the right to abortion – a parental notification bill that passed in 2011 over the veto of then-Gov. John Lynch and a ban on partial-birth abortions that passed in 2012.
A majority of Granite Staters have long said abortion should be legal in all or some circumstances, although the percentages have fluctuated, according to a 2021 poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. But respondents were nearly evenly split on the 24-week ban. Forty-eight percent said they strongly or somewhat support the legislation, while 47 percent said they strongly or somewhat oppose it. The remaining 11 percent said they were neutral (5 percent) or didn’t know enough to say (6 percent).
New Hampshire does not collect abortion statistics, so it is impossible to know how many abortions are performed after 24 weeks. But during the House Judiciary Committee’s public hearing in February, Dr. Maris Toland of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center said they are “exceedingly uncommon.”
And they are not provided by the state’s three main abortion providers – Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, Equality Health Center, and Lovering Health Center. Those clinics perform only medication abortions via the “abortion pill” up to 11 weeks and surgical abortions up to 15 weeks and six days after the start of a woman’s menstrual cycle.
Abortion bills come before legislatures every year, but 2021 has seen far more than is typical. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research organization, there have been 549 bills restricting abortions introduced in 47 states this year. As of mid-May, 69 had been enacted, including nine bans on abortion. Prior to this year, 2011 held the record with 58 restrictions enacted, seven of them bans, according to the institute.
In that decade, the New Hampshire House took up several bills restricting abortion at viability, generally considered between 24 and 28 weeks, but defeated all without sending them to the Senate. Four sitting Republican senators were House members during some of those votes. Two Judiciary Committee members – Gannon and French – and James Gray of Rochester voted for those restrictions each time. When she served in the House, Sen. Erin Hennessey of Littleton mostly voted against them.