Dec. 2—CONCORD — As the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over an abortion ban in Mississippi Wednesday, debate kicked off in the State House, where both sides seek major changes to New Hampshire's new ban on abortions after 24 weeks.
That ban takes effect Jan. 1.
Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate want to enact abortion protections that could apply regardless of what the nation's highest court rules.
The case of Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health Organization has raised the prospect that the court could alter the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision that made all abortions legal before a fetus is viable outside the womb.
"Unfortunately, it is no longer an option for us to count on the U.S. Supreme Court to protect our reproductive rights — now is the time to take proactive action to protect abortion access in New Hampshire," said state Sen. Becky Whitley, D-Hopkinton.
Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund rallied in front of the State House on Wednesday in support of its cause.
Meanwhile, anti-abortion legislators have their own designs on the issue, with 2022 legislative proposals that would ban an abortion once there's evidence of a fetal heartbeat as well as permit a biological father to go to court to prevent an expectant mother from terminating a pregnancy without his support.
"I think the Supreme Court is eventually going to turn the abortion debate back to the states and reverse Roe v. Wade," said state Rep. David Testerman, R-Franklin, who authored the fetal heartbeat bill.
"These bills will set the tone for New Hampshire, and fetal heartbeat is something we can measure."
15-week ban in Mississippi
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide by next June whether to uphold a 15-week abortion ban in Mississippi that has been legally suspended since lawmakers adopted it in 2018.
Many judicial observers have concluded that with a 6-3 conservative majority, the court is poised to endorse more state restrictions on abortions. Questions remain how far it will go.
Gov. Chris Sununu, who signed the state budget containing New Hampshire's abortion ban, rejected the view that legal abortions were at risk.
"In terms of this Dobbs case down in Washington, that is not an overturn of Roe v. Wade; it has to do with viability and all this kind of other stuff," Sununu told reporters during a COVID-19 briefing Tuesday.
"So, no, I mean, I'm not really paying attention to that case. And so, I mean, we will see where it goes. But that case does not decide Roe v. Wade."
Devon Chaffee, executive director of Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, said the "political landscape is shifting," and lawmakers need to affirm a woman's autonomy over her own body.
"We remain steadfast in our dedication to defending reproductive rights, and will use the full firepower of the ACLU to protect them in the Granite State," Chaffee said.
Shannon McGinley, executive director of Cornerstone Action, a socially conservative group that supported the abortion ban, said it's reasonable and appropriate.
"Those trying to link New Hampshire's moderate law with these other states are grandstanding," McGinley said.
"Mississippi's abortion debate is not New Hampshire's abortion debate. In the Granite State, our debate is between moderates who support restricting abortion at six months of pregnancy and pro-abortion extremists who believe in the right to kill an unborn child for any reason and at any time."
In January, the New Hampshire House of Representatives will consider a separate bill that would repeal the part of the abortion ban law that requires all women seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound, even if it's not medically necessary.
"This is the least they can do to mitigate the harm they are doing," said Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua.
New Hampshire's abortion ban has no exceptions for rape and incest, though it has one to protect the health of the mother. It contains fines and jail terms for doctors who violate its provisions.
During a radio interview with Chris Ryan Wednesday morning, Sununu repeated that he would sign a repeal of the ultrasound requirement and supported adding exceptions for rape and incest to the ban.
Abortion rights advocates said repealing the ban outright was likely a bridge too far next year.
"We acknowledge the political climate at the State House makes that a difficult fight. It is one, however, that we will not shy away from," Rosenwald said.
Meanwhile, Testerman admitted that with a tiny Republican majority in the House, it will be difficult for his side to rack up new wins next year.
"It's been very tough for the Legislature to support the pro-life position to this point, but we'll keep trying," said Testerman, whose wife, Karen, has already announced a GOP primary challenge to Sununu's bid for a fourth term as governor in 2022.
McGinley said the ultrasound requirement is among the most modest in the country and as written would punish only doctors who ignored the mandate in cases where there was "substantial risk" the fetus was more than 24 weeks old.
"With every elected branch of government in New Hampshire being led by Republicans, not by Planned Parenthood, we should be able to hold on to this common sense legislation," McGinley said.
"It's the right thing to do because babies' lives depend on it."