Abortion moves show historic change
CONCORD – Activist Ellen Kolb remembers epic losses in the New Hampshire House over the past three decades in trying to win limits on abortions for adults, but this year she has not one, but five major reasons to celebrate.
This year for the first time, the New Hampshire chamber – known for its staunch defense of abortion rights over the decades – has passed bills that would ban abortions after 20 weeks, ban so- called “partial-birth” abortions, and require a 24-hour waiting period for abortions. Lawmakers also banned government funding to any health provider performing elective abortions and allowed employers to not provide contraceptive coverage such as the morning-after pill, considered by some to be chemical abortion because it ends a possible pregnancy.
The House also has passed bills to study how to collect abortion statistics and to give judges more time to rule in cases where pregnant minors don’t want to notify their parents before getting an abortion. Another bill would include the death of a fetus in the murder statutes.
Kolb, legislative affairs director of Cornerstone Action, says while persistence paid off, she doesn’t expect all the bills to survive the Senate or a possible gubernatorial veto. Most of the bills did not pass the House with enough support to ensure a veto override.
The voting balance could shift in the next election just as it shifted in her favor in 2010.
“If it is something very close in votes, it is something that can go back and forth,” she said.
New Hampshire’s House has thwarted dozens of efforts to pass similar legislation since Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. New Hampshire had no laws regulating abortion on its books from 1997 to 2003 after abortion rights supporters succeeded in repealing three 1848 criminal abortion laws under then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, and a more moderate Republican Legislature. The state has consistently had agency rules in place banning most publicly funded abortions for poor women.
The one exception made by the House over the years was enactment – under a Republican governor and Legislature – of a parental notification law for minors in 2003. The measure was never implemented and was later repealed by Democrats.
Republicans overrode Democratic Gov. John Lynch’s veto of a similar notification law last year and it took effect in January. Lynch, who supports abortion rights, has not said if he would veto the latest bills.
Kolb remembers the first time the Legislature passed a bill to repeal the 1848 criminal abortion laws under former Republican Gov. Judd Gregg, who had been unclear on his position. Gregg vetoed bills to repeal the laws in 1989, 1990 and 1992.
“That was a shock to me,” Kolb said.
Gregg also vetoed legislation in 1990 to allow abortions after the Roe v. Wade decision. That fight was so emotional that one of the sponsors was told she no longer was welcome at the church where she was baptized and married.
The vetoes did not stop a prominent Republican state representative and member of the National Abortion Rights Action League’s national board from endorsing Gregg’s re-election over a pro-abortion rights Democrat.
Laura Thibault, interim executive director of the local NARAL Pro-Choice America group, believes women’s rights were not as threatened then as they are now. She said what has happened this year caught many by surprise.
“I think for a lot of people, the issue of reproductive rights is one they think is safe,” she said.
At a Senate hearing Thursday on four of the bills, 83-year-old former state Rep. Hilda Sokol pleaded with senators not to return to a time of back-alley abortions.
“After 50 years of having had the right to make decisions about having children, I’m disturbed at the backlash,” she said.
Abortion-rights activists credit Republican House Speaker William O’Brien with the turnaround in the House by helping elect enough conservative Republicans opposed to abortion. Usually a speaker only votes to change the outcome of a bill, but O’Brien has voted for abortion bills from the speaker’s podium. His efforts also led to passage of the bill to block funding to hospitals and other health providers offering elective abortions despite a House committee’s recommendation that it be killed.
O’Brien, who calls abortion repugnant, declined a request for an interview on the issue.
“This group of Republicans ran on jobs and the economy and as we have seen on their focus on a social agenda, they really swindled the voters. I think there are some people out there happy with it but that is a small group,” said House Democratic Leader Terie Norelli, a former NARAL board member.
Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said state polls have shown for years that New Hampshire has consistently supported abortion rights. While Smith believes pocketbook issues will be the issue voters look to in making candidate decisions in November, Democrats could use the House’s action to fire up supporters.
Abortion-rights activists hope to capitalize on rising anger among women who feel their rights are being threatened, said Jennifer Frizzell, senior policy adviser for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. Her organization has gotten perhaps 5,000 calls from people offering to help over the past six months, she said.
“I think women up and down the ballot will determine the outcome of the election (in 2012),” she said.
At Thursday’s hearing, Sokol, part of a new group called Seniors Defending Women’s Health, gave the Senate committee a petition signed by 100 people opposing the bills.
And Lisa Gerrish, a consultant from Bow, says she felt tricked by the House over how it presented the bills as improvements to women’s health instead of limiting their rights. She has begun working against their passage instead of just complaining and said it’s time for women to be angry “and let people know.”
Kolb says her side is ready and remains committed to keep fighting for a society where abortion is unthinkable.
“This is not going away anytime soon,” she said.