House passes bill that would add exception to abortion law for a fatal fetal diagnosis

By: - March 31, 2022 3:42 pm
NH State Rep. Jess Edwards at NH State House

Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican, urged House members to allow women to terminate a pregnancy after 24 weeks for a fatal fetal diagnosis. (Screenshot House livestream)

The House session began in January with four bills seeking to loosen the state’s new 24-week abortion ban or protect abortion access going forward. Just one, written by Republicans, will make it to the Senate. 

House Bill 1609, which passed the House Thursday, 231-114, would add an exception for a fatal fetal diagnosis, which includes fetuses that do not have brains, kidneys, or fully formed hearts and would not be able to live after delivery. 

Currently, a woman may receive an abortion after 24 weeks only if her life or a “major bodily function” is at risk. The latter includes a threat to a woman’s immune system or digestive, bowel, bladder, respiratory, or neurological function.

Both the House and Senate had until Thursday to vote on their bills. Legislation that passed will now “cross over” to the other chamber. Three additional abortion-related bills unrelated to the ban have already made it to the Senate. 

HB 1609’s fate in the Senate is uncertain given that chamber’s 11-13 rejection of similar legislation in February.

The bill also clarifies that an ultrasound must be performed prior to an abortion only when the woman is 24 weeks pregnant or close to it. It does not seek to remove the criminal and civil penalties against providers, which include up to seven years in prison and a fine up to $100,000.

During Thursday’s House debate, Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican and strong supporter of the new abortion ban last year, advocated for the bill, saying testimony from women who’ve experienced late-in-pregnancy fatal fetal diagnoses had resonated with him. 

“We have medical professionals who are trained, we have patients that you’ve got to assume, after 24 weeks, probably would like to keep the baby,” Edwards said. “But when it comes time to make that decision, I think we need to trust the process. The process is, the physician and the patient go through an informed consent process.” 

Edwards added: “I don’t think we should be in the exam room with them when they’re having that conversation.”

Republican Bob Lynn of Windham also urged members to support the bill, saying the state should leave “the heart-wrenching decision of whether to have an abortion in such cases to where it should be: with the mother in consultation with her husband or partner and her doctor.”

Opposing the bill was Rep. Kurt Wuelper, a Strafford Republican and vice chairman of New Hampshire Right to Life. Contrary to testimony from medical providers, Wuelper said Down syndrome could be considered a fatal fetal anomaly and that women will be “better off” if they deliver a baby rather than terminate the pregnancy. 

“What are we actually deciding is, is it OK to intentionally kill that baby?” he said. 

This was the House’s second vote on HB1609.

In February, it narrowly passed the bill, 179-174. Because the bill contains a $19,000 annual cost to the state, Speaker Sherman Packard, a Londonderry Republican, referred it to the Finance Committee for a second look.

There, some committee Republicans attempted to strip the fatal fetal anomaly exception, saying it would render the new law meaningless and violate agreements Republicans demanded in exchange for supporting the budget last year. That effort failed.

There are three other abortion-related bills already with the Senate.

  • House Bill 1625, which would repeal the right of health centers providing abortions to set up buffer “safety zones” outside their doors, passed the House, 168-162, with 10 Republicans voting against it. Current law allows a safety zone of up to 25 feet. 
  • House Bill 1080 would allow health care providers to refuse to provide abortions, sterilization, or birth control if they object to abortion. It would include providers in public and private hospitals, physicians offices, pharmacies, nursing homes, and medical schools. Under the bill, health care providers include doctors, nurses, medical assistants, and pharmacists.
  • Democrats filed House Bill 1673 to repeal the new abortion law. Republicans voted to amend it to be only a clarification of the ultrasound requirement. (Another attempt to repeal the law, Senate Bill 399, saw the same fate in the Senate.)

A few others have been voted down, sent to interim study, or tabled, meaning they are almost certainly not moving forward at this point. Among those to garner the most notoriety was House Bill 1181, which would have allowed any man to ask a court to halt an abortion without first proving paternity. That was referred to interim study.

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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.

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