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Where they stand: How abortion policy is playing in the race for N.H. governor

Signs at the abortion rights rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Dan Tuohy
The U.S. Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v. Wade provoked protests across New Hampshire even before it was final. Here, crowds gathered in Portsmouth when a draft copy of that ruling was made public in May. Additional protests were held following the official ruling in June.

In the New Hampshire governor’s race, both candidates describe themselves as pro-choice. But they differ on some key points at a time when the shifting national landscape around abortion has put reproductive rights center stage.

The November election marks the first statewide contest since a new law banning most abortions after 24 weeks took effect in the Granite State. And the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade raised the stakes of state-level abortion politics ahead of the midterms, as it removed federal abortion protections and opened the door to new restrictions at the state level.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu says he’s generally pro-choice but supports some restrictions later in pregnancy. He’s suggested that the Democrats are focusing on abortion at the expense of other critical issues like inflation.

State Sen. Tom Sherman, the Democratic nominee for governor, has attacked Sununu for signing the 24-week ban, calling it an unwarranted governmental intrusion into private health care decisions best left to patients and their doctors. He says the state should do more to affirmatively protect abortion access.

Divisions over N.H.’s existing abortion restrictions

The most significant divisions between Sununu and Sherman have centered on a new law banning most abortions after 24 weeks and imposing criminal penalties on doctors who violate it, which Sununu signed last year as part of the state budget.

The 2021 law originally banned abortions after that point, except in “medical emergencies,” and required ultrasounds for people seeking abortions at any point in pregnancy. This year, lawmakers added an exception for fatal fetal anomalies and amended the ultrasound requirement; both Sununu and Sherman supported those changes.

Sununu had voiced support for banning abortions later in pregnancy during his first run for governor in 2016, but told WMUR in October 2020 that he wasn’t planning to change the state’s abortion laws.

“Abortion restrictions? I don’t, I’m not looking to make any changes on that,” Sununu said at the time.

Since signing New Hampshire’s new abortion law in 2021, Sununu has both characterized it as a reasonable measure to restrict abortions later in pregnancy and, at times, distanced himself from the policy, which GOP lawmakers attached to a budget bill. He has said he would like to see the criminal penalties removed, and exceptions for rape and incest added.

“Of course it’s not my abortion ban,” Sununu said in a debate Tuesday on the radio show Good Morning New Hampshire. “I didn’t want to put that into the budget, the Legislature did that. But of course we weren’t going to shut down government and veto a budget over it.”

He claimed more credit for the law this May, speaking to the conservative podcast Three Martini Lunch.

“I’m the first governor in 40 years to sign an abortion ban,” he said. “Republican governors before me never signed that. I’ve done more on the pro-life issue, if you will, than anyone.”

For his part, Sherman says the new law is too restrictive for doctors and patients when complications arise late in pregnancy. He said he wants to repeal the restriction.

“When something goes wrong in the third trimester, it’s a tragedy,” Sherman, a gastroenterologist, said in the debate Tuesday. “It’s a moment when a woman is having to decide with her doctor … how to move forward. And the government has no role in that relationship.”

He argued the law’s criminal penalties and narrow medical exception mean a provider “is going to have to sit with the woman and the lawyer, and decide whether or not she’s sick enough to go ahead.”

Medical providers say abortions that late in pregnancy are extremely rare. Dr. Ilana Cass, the chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Dartmouth Health, said they most commonly involve a fetus developing a “catastrophic” anomaly that will prevent it from surviving.

“My providers couldn't remember us having performed one of these procedures in a very, very long time,” she said.

Cass said she worries the law’s criminal penalties will deter doctors from training and working in the state, especially those who specialize in higher-risk pregnancies.

The law’s supporters say it protects fetuses at around the time they become viable.

“What we did was we said, hey, an unambiguously viable baby is worthy of receiving human rights protections,” said Republican Rep. Jess Edwards, of Auburn.

Sununu and other backers of the law have pointed out that many other states, including liberal strongholds like Massachusetts and New York, also ban most abortions at that point. Both states, however, have exceptions allowing abortion beyond 24 weeks to preserve a pregnant person’s life or health that are broader than New Hampshire’s “medical emergencies” exception, and neither state imposes criminal penalties on providers.

Post-Roe landscape

While the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion didn’t have any immediate effect in New Hampshire, abortion rights are not explicitly protected in state law. Both Sununu and Sherman say they would sign legislation codifying those rights — though Sununu resisted calls from Democrats to convene a special session for that purpose over the summer, saying it was unnecessary and could confuse residents.

Sununu has said New Hampshire will not help other states investigate or prosecute people who provide or receive an abortion in New Hampshire, but has declined to issue an executive order to that effect, as his counterparts in Maine and Massachusetts have done.

Sherman told NHPR that on “day one” he would “take executive action protecting abortion providers and prohibiting cooperation with any outside law enforcement agency seeking to prosecute women’s access to healthcare services without a court order.”

Both candidates say they would block any additional abortion restrictions from becoming law in New Hampshire.

“Government has no place in the hospital room making health care decisions that should be up to a woman and her doctor,” Sherman said in a statement to NHPR. “I would veto any attempts to further restrict abortion rights in New Hampshire and would work with the legislature to repeal the cruel abortion ban signed into law by Governor Sununu.”

Asked by NHPR whether he would allow any more abortion restrictions to become law, Sununu simply answered “No.”

Paul Cuno-Booth covers health and equity for NHPR. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Keene Sentinel, where he wrote about police accountability, local government and a range of other topics. He can be reached at
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