Abortion rights activists rallied outside the State House in May after the leak of the draft U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe, which happened officially last month. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)
This story was updated March 24, 2023 at 8:45 a.m. to correct the name of the representative who addressed a proposed constitutional amendment.
The support of several Republican House lawmakers Thursday gave Democrats wins on significant abortion bills.
By fairly wide margins, members voted to remove criminal and civil penalties from the state’s 24-week abortion ban and to prohibit the state from further restricting access to an abortion.
Legislation repealing the 24-week ban ended in a 192-192 tie, with five Republicans supporting repeal. The bill was tabled and is likely to stay there; un-tabling it requires a two-thirds vote moving forward.
And two bills that would have further restricted access to an abortion failed, again because Republicans joined Democrats in voting them down.
House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, an Auburn Republican, issued a statement immediately after the votes, calling Democrats’ support for all three bills “radical.”
“While it is easy for extremist Democrats to use heated rhetoric to try to advance their radical agenda, the fact of the matter is that public opinion is not on their side,” Osborne said.
His statement did not acknowledge the impact made by the Republicans who voted with Democrats. The House’s near even party divide of 201 Republicans and 197 Democrats has made daily attendance and every vote all the more critical this session.
Osborne argued that polling has shown strong support for abortion rights in New Hampshire but also support for restrictions. “Our current law satisfies and represents the majority of Granite Stater’s views on abortion. Today’s votes prove the Republicans are not the extremists on this issue.”
Abortion rights supporters will face a tougher fight when the bills reach the Senate, where Republicans have a 14-10 majority.
Gov. Chris Sununu’s office did not immediately return a message asking if he would sign the bills if they reach his desk. While campaigning for his fourth term, Sununu said he supported repealing penalties for violating the law, which include up to seven years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
Repeal of penalties
Rep. Dan Wolf, a Newbury Republican who helped add a fatal fetal anomaly exception to the abortion law last session, was the prime sponsor of this year’s bill to repeal the law’s penalties. That effort, House Bill 224, passed 199-185 on Thursday, with the help of 16 Republicans.
The state’s abortion law allows an abortion after 24 weeks in limited circumstances: when a baby has a fetal anomaly that it is unlikely to survive or when continuing the pregnancy endangers a mother’s life.
Medical providers, including Dr. Ilana Cass, chairwoman of obstetrics and gynecology at Dartmouth Health, told lawmakers that abortions at or after 24 weeks are rare. But they are also complicated, providers say, because a fatal fetal anomaly may be discovered shortly before 24 weeks, giving a provider and family little time to decide whether to terminate the pregnancy.
At an hearing earlier this year, Cass told lawmakers that threats of prison time and fines in such complicated situations have dissuaded providers from choosing to practice in New Hampshire.
Speaking on the House floor Thursday, Wolf reminded House members of Cass’ testimony, arguing that fewer providers mean fewer options for patients.
Wolf said his daughter was in the last days of her pregnancy in northern New Hampshire when she felt something was wrong. She made it to the hospital within an hour, enough time for medical staff to deliver her baby by an emergency Cesarean section.
“The baby was born with its umbilical cord wrapped around its neck four times,” Wolf said, “The baby survived because she didn’t have to drive an hour to Dartmouth or an hour and a half to Boston. We cannot allow the decline in good medical services to put our daughters at risk.”
Rep. Bob Lynn, a Windham Republican, challenged arguments about the penalties’ severity, saying providers must know their decisions violate the law.
“There is no doubt that doctors often are required to deal with complicated cases and to make difficult decisions,” he said. “But the requirement of engaging in ‘knowingly’ unlawful conduct affords health care providers substantial protection against being prosecuted for mere errors in judgment, even in circumstances where with the benefit of hindsight they perhaps should have acted.”
No further restrictions
Ahead of this week’s session, Osborne had said leadership would not call for further abortion restrictions. Several Republicans went further Thursday, voting with Democrats to pass House Bill 88, which would leave the existing law in place but prohibited the state from setting additional restrictions on access to abortion.
Rep. Kristine Perez, a Londonderry Republican, was not among them. Perez argued the existing law poses no threat to those who have an abortion prior to 24 weeks.
“There is no law stating I cannot hike Mount Washington,” Perez said. “Therefore, if a law enforcement officer arrested me for hiking Mount Washington, it would have no merit and be thrown out.”
She added: “There is no law that says you have to wear a yellow shirt on Fridays. Therefore, you cannot be arrested for wearing a blue shirt on Friday. We have a law that allows women to exercise their rights as stated in the existing (law).”
Rep. Alexis Simpson, an Exeter Democrat and the bill’s prime sponsor, countered that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn federal abortion protections makes state protections even more critical.
“The 24-week abortion ban did not guarantee abortion protections prior to that cutoff,” she said. “…HB 88 adds critical protections prior to 24 weeks, prohibiting the state from interfering with a woman’s access to abortion in the first 23 weeks of pregnancy.”
The bill passed in a 199-185 “division” vote, a process that doesn’t reveal how each member voted. But the Democrats are two members shy of 199 when all are present and voting – and not all were Thursday.
A constitutional right to choice
An effort to add constitutional protections for reproductive health choices like abortion won a narrow 193-191 majority but fell far short of the required three-fifths vote to pass. Rep. Eric Turer, a Brentwood Democrat, urged representatives to support the legislation, which would have allowed voters to decide whether to enshrine the right in the state constitution.
“Let’s do the ‘little D’ democratic thing. Let’s do the ‘little C’ conservative thing. Let’s do the true Live Free or Die thing,” Turer said. “Let’s pass this elegantly crafted bill to offer the people back their right.”
Three Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the measure.
Additional restrictions fail
The House defeated House Bill 591, which would have banned abortion after six weeks. The 217-110 vote included 81 Republicans voting against the bill.
House Bill 562, the so-called “informed consent” bill, failed on a voice vote. It would have added a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion, during which time providers would have to tell the person seeking the abortion about the health risks of abortion, the availability of government assistance for pregnancy care, and the fact that the child’s father is liable for child support “if his identity can be determined.”.
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