Budget politics threaten bill expanding exceptions to abortion ban

By: - March 15, 2022 2:36 pm
Exterior of the State House

The subcommittee voted, 4-3, to recommend the full committee find the bill inexpedient to legislate. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The one bill expanding exceptions to the abortion ban to pass the House may be defeated yet – and the committee hearing that set the stage pulled back the curtain on the politics of abortion.

A subcommittee of House Finance voted Monday to recommend the full committee kill House Bill 1609, which would leave the 24-week ban in place but add exceptions for rape, incest, fatal fetal anomalies, and the mother’s health. 

The law currently makes an exception only for the mother’s life. (A second bill seeking to expand exceptions, House Bill 1673, is expected to come before the House this week. It’s likely to face an equally tough fight.)

The Republican-backed bill, HB 1609, which also has the governor’s support, passed the House 179-174 last month. But because it has financial implications for the state – the state must track abortions and doctors charged with violating the ban could require a trial – Speaker Sherman Packard sent it to the House Finance Committee for a second vote.

Knowing the bill faced a tough second vote before the House, its prime sponsor, Rep. Dan Wolf, a Newbury Republican, came to Monday’s finance subcommittee meeting ready to compromise. 

Wolf said he would reluctantly drop the rape and incest exceptions but insisted the other exceptions for fatal fetal anomalies and the mother’s health remain.  

“To me it’s critical, critical that we protect women who may be facing death because of a pregnancy or having to carry a fetus to term that is incompatible with life,” he told Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican and committee chairman. “I hope that you people will not make a medical decision for someone who should be making a decision between herself, her spouse, and her doctor, and possibly her priest.”

Edwards said he was open to those changes but also wanted fatal fetal anomalies clearly defined to make clear, for example, that Down syndrome would not be a qualifying exception. He wanted “mother’s health” better defined as well. 

Otherwise, Edwards told Wolf, HB 1609 would be seen as an attempt to gut the ban, which was one of several policy issues passed as part of the state budget, not as individual pieces of legislation. 

Edwards’ next comment surprised Wolf.

“The language that got adopted into HB 2 (the state budget) was an essential part of a multi-variable set of agreements that were necessary for us to get the votes to pass the budget,” Edwards said.  The 24-week abortion ban was one of those agreements, Edwards said. “We have to preserve the integrity of the promises that have been made to the people who voted for (the budget).”

Wolf told Edwards he had very different conversations with state leaders prior to the budget vote. He said fellow state representatives and the governor urged him to vote for the budget, telling him they’d work with him to address his concerns about the abortion ban. 

“And now I sit here and find out that a deal was made?” Wolf said. “I have to tell you that my credibility feels pretty shot because I would have voted against that budget if I knew we weren’t going to be able to modify (the abortion ban) to some degree.”

“I’m not talking about gutting the bill,” Wolf said. “I’m talking about after 24 weeks, (an exception) for fetal abnormalities incompatible with life. I’m talking about a situation that affects the mother, the health and life of the mother after 24 weeks. I’m talking about eliminating the ultrasound, up to approximately 24 weeks. And I’m leaving the penalties in. So I’m not gutting the bill.”

When Rep. Jerry Knirk, a doctor and Freedom Democrat sitting on the subcommittee cautioned Edwards against requiring medical definitions in legislation, Edwards asked if he’d prefer a vote on HB 1609 as written. Knirk agreed, and the subcommittee voted, 4-3, to recommend the full committee find the bill inexpedient to legislate. 

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications. Email: [email protected]