This article was updated May 26, 2021 at 3:30 p.m. to correct the spelling of Ben Vihstadt’s name.
A last-minute amendment to the Senate’s budget would keep a 24-week abortion ban but exempt providers from using separate space and staff for abortion services, a requirement reproductive health clinics said would seriously jeopardize care for 12,000 people in the state. However, the state could still require the separation if the Executive Council makes it a condition of federal funding for the state’s largest abortion providers.
Three of the five sitting executive councilors have previously voted down funding on that issue.
More immediately, the amendment, drafted by Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, could complicate passage of a state budget in two ways: It eliminates what House Republicans said was a nonnegotiable requirement that reproductive health clinics physically and financially separate abortions and routine health care. And, moving the 24-week ban from a bill that could be voted up or down into the budget means defeating it would require a budget veto from Gov. Chris Sununu.
The next option for Republicans committed to forcing a physical and financial separation lies with the Republican-controlled Executive Council, which must sign off on the federal contract that funds Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, the state’s largest abortion provider.
The council has rejected contracts before, once with the support of Sununu when he was on the council.
Asked about the amendment, Sununu’s spokesman Ben Vihstadt said, “The budget process continues to have a lot of moving pieces and our office is monitoring the changes.”
Current Executive Councilors David Wheeler, Joe Kenney, and Ted Gatsas have voted against prior contracts when Planned Parenthood said it could not continue to provide reproductive health care like cancer screenings, STD testing, and breast exams if it had to pay for a separate space and staff to provide abortions, which make up 7 percent of its work. And, they say, they are already separating the two sides of their work to ensure no public money is used for abortions.
Planned Parenthood’s existing contract ends June 30, but in past years it has come before the council as late as fall.
Reached Wednesday, Kenney said he’d need to see the contract before confirming how he’d vote. But he said his feelings about a separation requirement have not changed. Kenney, like many Republicans who identify as pro-life, believes the only way to guarantee that no taxpayer dollars fund abortions is to require they be done in a separate space with separate staff.
Gatsas said he could not comment until he saw the contract, and Wheeler could not be reached Wednesday.
Kayla Montgomery of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England equated the House’s required financial and physical separation with defunding family-planning services and said it should not have been in the budget. “These requirements are unnecessary and impossible and do nothing to contribute to the health of patients,” she said. “It’s shameful to think that some lawmakers are willing to negotiate with people’s health and safety. We will be watching the Legislature closely in case they make further attempts to sneak this language back into the budget, and we look forward to working with the Executive Council to ensure that these family-planning contracts are approved.”
Councilor Cinde Warmington, the lone Democrat, said she’d oppose making separation a contract condition.
“We need to make sure that family planning is funded and that reproductive health for everyone across the state is funded,” she said. “Family planning is critical. Once again, they are politicizing services that are bipartisan. There is long-term support for it, and we know it works.”
Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican who chairs the House Finance Committee, said Wednesday he will take the amendment back to the House Republicans, who outnumber Democrats.
“I think we’re going to have to have a pretty serious discussion during the committee of conference,” he said, referring to the final budget negotiations between the two chambers. “We need not remind the Senate that 153 House Republicans said they would not vote for any budget that did not have our language in it. We’ll have to decide whether we want to pass a budget or not.”