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N.H. Republicans back fatal fetal anomaly exception

New Hampshire State House
Dan Tuohy
New Hampshire State House

House Republican lawmakers appear open to adding an exception for fatal fetal anomalies to the state’s 24-week abortion ban passed last year – but continue to oppose proposed exceptions for victims of rape and incest.

That’s a turnaround from where they appeared last week when Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican, lobbied lawmakers to overturn the House’s passage of House Bill 1609, saying allowing its addition of exceptions for rape, incest, and fatal fetal anomalies would render the abortion law meaningless and violate the negotiated agreements needed to pass the budget last year.

“I think the Finance Committee is obligated to keep those promises because it’s less than a year after we did those agreements, and we’re just about 14 or 15 months from needing agreements again,” he said referring to next year’s budget negotiations. “You can only lose your integrity and credibility once.”

After HB 1609 passed the House in February, 179-174, Republican House Speaker Sherman Packard of Londonderry referred it to the Finance Committee for a second look because its requirement that Health and Human Services report annually the number of abortions done after 24-weeks is estimated to cost the state about $19,000 a year.

When the committee took up the bill Wednesday, Edwards proposed the House kill it.

Among those to object was Rep. Bob Lynn, a Windham Republican.

“The fetal abnormalities inconsistent with life, it seems to me, is critically important,” he said. “It seems to me that in that situation of a fetal abnormality that is inconsistent with life, it is just too much for the government to step in and say, ‘You will have the baby.’ It just seems to me that that’s a decision for the mother.”

Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat, also objected, saying the Finance Committee should be considering only the bill’s financial implications, not policy decisions already endorsed.

“I continue to be concerned that we have put our finger on policy and that we are changing the bill substantially from how it came to us,” she said. “The amendment before you has nothing to do with finances. It is strictly policy.”

With two Republicans joining the Democrats, the committee voted down Edwards’s request 10-11.

Edwards immediately proposed a second amendment that would retain HB 1609’s exception for fatal fetal anomalies after 24 weeks but not its exceptions for victims of rape and incest. It also keeps in place the bill’s clarification that an ultrasound must be performed only when an abortion is done after 24 weeks, or close to it.

In a 12-9 vote, Edward’s proposed changes passed with only the committee’s Republicans voting for it.

Rep. Leonard Turcotte, a Barrington Republican, made clear he wasn’t thrilled with the inclusion of the fatal fetal anomaly exception but ultimately voted with the majority.

“Although I am not a big proponent of this amendment, I will support it only because it’s not quite as obnoxious as (HB) 1609 was by itself,” he said.

Ultimately, most of the committee’s Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the overall bill, as amended by Edwards. It will go to the House floor with a 20-1 recommendation that it pass. Rep. Katherine Rogers, a Concord Democrat who had supported the original version of HB 1609, was the lone no vote.

In an interview after the vote, Edwards said he is “very comfortable” with the new version of HB 1609 that retains only an exception for a fetal anomaly that is incompatible with life. “It’s good policy, and it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

The phrasing “incompatible with life,” he said, is reassurance that abortions after 24-weeks will not be done for fetuses that have health problems or disabilites they could survive, a concern the bill’s opponents have voiced.

Edwards said he proposed the amendment out of practicality after being unable to defeat the bill. “As you might imagine, for legislation to pass, it requires a majority,” Edwards said. “And it was perceived we couldn’t hold the (Republican) caucus together.”

Following the vote, Wallner said she would have preferred the bill move forward with exceptions for rape and incest as well as fatal fetal anomalies. “Everyone feels (the fatal fetal anomaly) is so important, but it was pretty obvious that people were going to back away from it,” she said.

The bill’s fate when it returns to the House floor will depend largely on which lawmakers are in attendance, though its chances are increased with the support of the committee’s Republicans.

In a late-night 163-165 vote last week, the House narrowly rejected an amended version of a another abortion bill, House Bill 1673, that would have added a fatal fetal anomaly exception to the law. By the time the vote was taken at 9:30 p.m., 32 Democrats were absent or did not vote, according to the state’s legislative website, and only 11 Republicans voted for it.

If HB 1609 makes it to the Senate, it will likely face another challenge. In February, the Senate rejected an effort to add an exception for a fatal fetal anomaly in a 13-11 vote that had the support of only one Republican, Sen. Erin Hennessey of Littleton.

State OBGYNs and maternal health specialists have said abortions after 24 weeks are rarely performed in New Hampshire, and then only in cases of a fatal fetal anomaly, incest, or rape. Mothers have also shared their stories of heartbreak after discovering late in pregnancy that their baby would not survive.

“This is just not something that people do because they just say, ‘Oh, you know what, maybe I should have an abortion,’” Michelle Cilley Foisy, who discovered 22 weeks into her pregnancy that her daughter had no brain and only a partially formed heart, told the Bulletin in February. “It’s such an impossible decision.”

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence.
Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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