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A year after Roe: Equality Health Center in Concord a focal point for abortion debate

Equality Health Center clinic escort Kari Stephen yells over the voice of Danny Hendrick as he recites scripture on South Main Street in Concord on Friday morning, June 23, 2023. Stephen says the anti-abortion forces that come to the clinic are more aggressive since the Hobbs Supreme Court decision.
Geoff Forester / Concord Monitor
Equality Health Center clinic escort Kari Stephen yells over the voice of Danny Hendrick as he recites scripture on South Main Street in Concord on Friday morning, June 23, 2023. Stephen says the anti-abortion forces that come to the clinic are more aggressive since the Hobbs Supreme Court decision.

This story was originally produced by the Concord Monitor. NHPR is republishing it in partnership with the Granite State News Collaborative.

Corrinn Pinto starts each Friday morning standing on the corner of South Main and Thompson Street in downtown Concord. As people pass her by, she has a simple question – “Can I share some good news with you?”

That news comes in the form of a small purple folded paper pamphlet. Inside, holds scriptures from the Bible.

On most Fridays, Pinto is concerned with one specific line in her purple pamphlet: “You shall not murder.”

Pinto is one of many vocal protestors on the street corner outside the Equality Health Center, one of four abortion clinics in the state. It’s indisputable to her that the surgical and medical abortions the center provides are blatant murder.

“It is no different than someone murdering their one-year-old or two-year-old. All life is created by God at the moment of conception,” she said.

In the past year marked by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which protected the constitutional right to an abortion, Pinto, of Manchester, has returned to the street corner every Friday calling for a complete ban on abortions.

And while abortion is now banned in 14 states, New Hampshire’s statute hasn’t changed – the practice remains legal until 24 weeks of pregnancy.

The past year following Roe’s downfall has been a balancing act for the Equality Health Center, both financially and organizationally, as they continue to watch legislative threats, fundraise to offset budget cuts and manage the weekly protests outside their Main Street location.

One year in New Hampshire

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade last year, it was during Market Days in Concord. Equality Health Center staff populated their Main Street booth with a large purple tablecloth and rainbow pride flags hanging from the tent.

It was also a quiet transition period for the center, as Jinelle Hobson had just accepted a position to become the new executive director. Amid the bombshell federal ruling, her soon-to-be leadership wasn’t public news.

For Hobson, who is a mother to two teenage girls, her work at the Equality Health Center became personal before she even began.

“That’s what hit me,” she said. “I have teenage daughters that now have fewer rights than I did during my reproductive years.”

And for the long-time nonprofit director, who previously led the Salem Animal Rescue League, her first year at the Equality Health Center has been marked by persistent uncertainty in this new uncharted territory of abortions where states get to decide specific rights that had been protected nationally for 50 years.

On the second floor of the Equality Health Center, a black framed sign decorates the floral wallpaper. In it, is a copy of the U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade ruling from 1973.

In her two decades in the family planning industry, Sarah Anderson never thought there would be a day when this federal protection didn’t exist.

“It was baffling. It was really baffling,” said Anderson, who is the practice manager at the Equality Health Center. “It’s not anything I thought we’d see.”

While abortion remains legal throughout New England, in a few instances the center has seen patients from out of state, said Anderson.

“They’ve come to New Hampshire because they’ve had a connection with somebody else here and they’ve come to us,” she said. “But that’s not a regular occurrence.”

"A battle zone"

It’s not just clients that have traveled from out of state, though. A few weeks ago, Equality Health Center staff saw their first protestor who was not from New Hampshire, outside their South Main Street offices located in a converted historic home.

For the past year, protests have become more regular outside the center on Wednesdays and Fridays in particular, said Hobson.

Hobson affirmed that everyone has the right to their own opinion. But there are two types of protesters – the peaceful, sign-holders on the sidewalk, and then there’s a more vocal group, harassing clientele, with the commotion audible from inside the building.

“It’s scary. It’s scary for the team, for the patient,” said Hobson. “We don’t know what’s going on out there.”

Hobson wishes the City of Concord would enforce the city and state buffer zones. New Hampshire law outlines a 25 foot buffer, and the city has its own ordinance that sets a 10 foot buffer from the property line of a health care facility.

But instead, Eileen and Bob Ehlers, longtime volunteer escorts at the center, have taken to drawing their own chalk line on the sidewalk.

“The chalk is more powerful,” said Eileen. “The buffer zones are not being enforced. I put my body on the line because I believe women have a right to access legal health care.”

For 13 years the Elhers have spent their mornings outside the center in rainbow bibs that say “clinic escort.”

Eileen Ehlers looks for clients who pull up to the clinic, greeting them at their car. When the verbal counter from protestors gets louder, she’ll open an umbrella, serving as a shield as they walk to the front door.

Other escorts will engage the “antis,” as they are often referred to by center staff. It’s been a longtime standoff between the two parties, with both sides getting to know each other as they meet on the street corner most weeks.

“I know most of them by name. They’ve been here for years too,” said Eileen. “We can have a civil conversation but as soon as they start harassing women, they aren’t my friends.”

The Elhers schedule is simple – when protesters are there, so are they.

And in the last year, it’s been more frequent, with a weekly schedule of Friday morning shifts that doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon – as Eileen fears legislative debates at the State House down the street could dwindle New Hampshire’s 24-week protection.

“It’s been a battle zone,” said Eileen.

Legislative landscape

New Hampshire’s right to an abortion up until 24 weeks of pregnancy still stands. But in Hobson’s first year as director, legislative attempts were made to protect and erode existing abortion rights.

Lawmakers introduced bills to implement a near-total abortion ban at 6 weeks, a “born alive” bill requiring doctors to provide health care even with fatal diagnoses and a 24-hour waiting period for anyone seeking an abortion.

These efforts failed. But counter attempts to protect the right to an abortion met a similar fate. With Republican majorities in both the Senate and House, bills introduced to enshrine abortion into state law and repeal the state’s 24-week limitation failed to pass.

Although policy changes didn’t come to fruition in New Hampshire, other states tell a cautionary tale, said Anderson.

“While we are not in that part of the world and part of the country right now that’s doing that, it’s petrifying,” she said. “There’s no like, ‘Well, we’re in New Hampshire.’ It doesn’t feel that way.”

While many decisions on abortion regulations happen under the watch of the state legislatures, in New Hampshire another corner of the State House has a stronghold on family planning services – the Executive Council.

In the last year, family planning centers experienced state funding cuts at the hands of the five member council, which has a 4-1 Republican majority, after councilors voted down four separate contracts.

The contracts would have provided the Equality Health Center with almost $500,000 through December of 2023.

These cuts came on the heels of a lack of federal funding during the Trump administration as well. After the former president issued a “gag rule,” with Title X grants, which meant that recipients could not mention abortion to patients, Equality Health Center was one of the providers in the state to withdraw from the funding.

Although the ruling was reversed by President Joe Biden – meaning that the Equality Health Center could reapply for federal funds – they have not done so yet.

These lost funds made up 30 percent of the center’s operating budget.

That meant Hobson’s had to get creative in her first year at the helm.

Looking ahead

Next year, the Equality Health Center will have reason to celebrate. It’s the 50th anniversary of the clinic, which started in 1974, after a group of women in Concord founded a non-profit to provide abortions.

It was the year after the Supreme Court legalized the right to do so with Roe v. Wade decision the prior year.

Now the clinic provides over a dozen services, including gender-affirming care and testing for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV in the same white house on Main Street. The clinic also serves as a residency training center for obstetricians and gynecologists in partnership with Dartmouth-Hitchcock, which is one of the few training centers in New England.

“We’ll never lose the history, ever, despite what’s going on in the political climate,” said Hobson.

As the clinic looks to its upcoming anniversary, they’ve launched a campaign called “Ensuring Access” under the premise that today’s fight is tomorrow’s freedom, said Hobson.

But center staff know that the freedom to provide services will lie in the hands of state lawmakers. Gov. Chris Sununu, who signed the state’s 24-week policy into law with his biennial budget in 2021, has not decided yet if he’ll seek a fifth term as governor in 2024. Whoever sits in the state’s corner office will have veto power over the state’s abortion landscape.

It’s why the Equality Health Center continues to partner with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and the Lovering Health Center, a clinic in Greenland, to hold press conferences and testify in response to bills in the State House.

“We need to be around people who also do this work because it’s so specialized,” said Anderson. “We’re all very proud of that work. There’s a lot of collective wisdom.”

The Equality Health Center isn’t going anywhere, said Hobson. But neither are the counter-protestors outside.

Pinto won’t stop until abortion is abolished.

And it’s a generational fight that she’s teaching her sons about as well. On Friday, the day before the one-year anniversary of Roe’s downfall, Pinto arrived on the street corner at 7:30 a.m. with her two teenage sons.

One of her sons, Jasper, had just returned home from a semester in college, holding a large sign reading “Seek the Lord,” to support his mom, he said.

And next to them, Danny Hendrick, read Bible verses aloud. He too, was introduced to the weekly protests by his mother, who stood outside the center for years.

“There’s really no justification to murder innocent life,” said Pinto. “There really isn’t.”

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