CONCORD, N.H. -- In a largely symbolic move, New Hampshire added to its books Jan. 1 its second law limiting abortion -- the state’s only such law affecting adults -- a ban on partial-birth abortions.
It is the only survivor of five major abortion-related bills acted on by the outgoing House and Senate, where Republicans enjoyed supermajorities.
Former Republican House Speaker William O’Brien led the House in passing bills to ban abortions after 20 weeks, ban partial-birth abortions, require a 24-hour waiting period for abortions, ban government funding to any health provider performing elective abortions and exempt employers from providing contraceptive coverage, considered by some to be chemical abortion because the pills prevent pregnancy. Only the partial-birth ban survived the Senate.
Democratic Gov. John Lynch’s veto was overridden by the Legislature despite an existing federal ban on the procedure.
Supporters said they didn’t trust the federal government to prosecute its law.
Abortion rights activists argued unsuccessfully the procedure is rarely performed in the country -- not at all in New Hampshire -- and in only the most traumatic circumstances. They said it deprives mothers and doctors the freedom to address severe fetal abnormalities regardless of the situation.
In a partial-birth abortion, a fetus capable of living outside the womb is partially extracted before being destroyed.
Doctors who violate the ban under the new law can be charged with a felony, jailed for up to 10 years and fined up to $100,000. The mother cannot be prosecuted.
Twenty-nine states have enacted bans on abortions after 12 weeks, but most aren’t enforced, according to the National Abortion Rights Action League. Nine states have no health exception for the mother, according to NARAL.
New Hampshire’s law exempts partial-birth abortions to preserve the mother’s life, but Dr. Barry Smith, a retired obstetrician/gynecologist speaking for the New Hampshire Medical Society, said satisfying the exception in New Hampshire would be next to impossible. He said the law requires two doctors unaffiliated with each other to agree the procedure is necessary -- but in New Hampshire, hospitals with doctors specializing in maternal fetal medicine collaborate.
"The patient would have to be referred out of state," said Smith.
But Smith said the impact of the new state law is effectively moot since partial-birth abortions aren’t done in New Hampshire. Abortions done after the second trimester are sent out of state, where medical alternatives that don’t involve aborting a viable fetus can be used, he said. They might involve the rare case of a mother who hoped to carry a child to term who develops heart problems after 24 weeks, he said.
"I honestly don’t believe it’s going to be a change in practice. I don’t think it’s going to have a chilling effect at all," said Smith.
Kurt Wuelper, president of New Hampshire Right to Life, agrees.
"It won’t really do much of anything, to tell you the truth," he said.
But Ellen Kolb, incoming legislative affairs director of Cornerstone Action, believes the bill’s passage makes an important statement.
"Finally, New Hampshire has a policy in place that says while your right to an abortion is protected, it is not in the public’s interest for a fetus to be partially delivered, then killed," she said.
Wuelper does not believe abortion opponents will get any bills passed during the next two years now that voters gave Democrats control of the House in the Nov. 6 election. Democrats also retained the governor’s office.
"Democrats believe the absolute right to kill children is the number one priority in the country," he said. "Our chances of getting anything through the House are virtually nil."
Laura Thibault, interim executive director of the local NARAL Pro-Choice America group, is happy voters returned Democrats to power in the House, but says the last two years of Republican control show what can happen when abortion rights supporters don’t pay attention to candidates’ positions.
"I think what this past session showed is what one election can do," she said.
Before the outgoing Legislature’s election in 2010, New Hampshire had thwarted dozens of efforts to pass legislation diluting women’s abortion rights legalized in the Roe v. Wade landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision. 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 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 Lynch’s veto of a similar notification law in 2011, and it took effect last January. The Legislature modified it in 2012 to give the judges more time to decide if pregnant girls must tell their parents before getting an abortion.
Lawmakers also passed a bill in 2012 to study how to collect abortion statistics.