New Hampshire Republicans: Ban Abortion Care at Eight Weeks

The drive to ban the medical procedure eight weeks into pregnancy is the latest iteration of state and federal level policies designed to erode abortion access.

[Photo: A Pro-Choice activist holds up a sign that reads
A pro-choice activist holds up a sign in support of abortion care during a March for Life rally. Lauryn Gutierrez / Rewire

New Hampshire Republicans in the state house have put forward a bill that would effectively ban abortion after eight weeks. HB 1511 modifies a so-called fetal homicide bill passed in 2017 by the state’s Republican-held legislature.

The eight-week abortion ban is at odds with the Granite State’s commitment to personal freedoms, Dr. Julie Johnston told Rewire.

“This bill would make it illegal for a woman to have full control of her body after eight weeks of pregnancy,” said Johnston, a family medicine physician in New Hampshire and a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health.

Eight weeks seems to be a new marker for anti-choice activists and politicians, said Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire’s vice president of law and the courts, who wrote this week about the GOP’s failed 20-week abortion ban in the U.S. Senate.

“By 8 weeks after fertilization, the unborn child reacts to touch. After 20 weeks, the unborn child reacts to stimuli that would be recognized as painful,” the Republican Senate bill stated—although evidence-based physicians refute such claims.

Ushma Upadhyay, an associate professor at the University of California at San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), told Rewire she has grave concerns about New Hampshire’s eight-week ban.

“There is absolutely no science that would support a cutoff at eight weeks. I have no idea what science they are basing it on. Usually, viability is at 24 weeks and even that is debatable,” she said. “The concern is that laws like these will drive many abortions outside of the clinical system and it will cause more harm to women.”

Nearly 90 percent of abortions take place in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, with two-thirds occurring in the first eight weeks. About 1 percent of all abortions in the United States take place after 20 weeks, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute.

“[Denying access to abortion care at] twenty weeks is horrible, even 24 weeks is horrible for many women. I don’t think there is an acceptable cutoff for all people and all situations because there are so many specific situations women are in, and women will need access to abortion throughout the pregnancy,” Upadhyay said. “It really is a medical decision that should be made between the woman herself in consultation with her doctor.”

Devon Chaffee, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union New Hampshire, is concerned that last year’s fetal homicide bill will “lead to a slippery slope that threatens women’s health and women’s rights.”

“In the 2018 legislative session we have already seen legislation proposed that would expand the fetal personhood provisions to effectively ban abortion at eight weeks and erode specific exemptions intended to protect healthcare providers. We are going to have to be ever vigilant moving forward to protect the health and reproductive rights of all women in our state,” she said.

While it is not clear what impact the fetal homicide bill has had yet, Molly Cowan, communications manager of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, pointed out that along with HB 1511, New Hampshire has several other bills filed that are “direct attempts to chip away at reproductive freedom and constitutional rights.” These include a later abortion ban, an “informed consent” bill, religious imposition legislation that would allow health-care providers to “conscientiously object” to performing abortions, and a bill to protect women from so-called coercive abortions, a policy that has been deemed “wildly divorced from reality.”

“In each instance, the New Hampshire Legislature is seeking to disrupt and intervene in the relationship between a woman and her health care provider. Abortion bans, waiting periods, and ‘provider refusal’ bills are bad policy because they would prevent a woman from making her own personal, private decision about her health and medical care,” Cowan said.

Local community organizer Crystal Paradis, who lives in Somersworth, called HB 1511 an “anti-choice attack” against people in her state.

“It redefines a fetus’ embryo stage from the 20th to the eighth week—a huge leap with no medical or scientific basis,” she told Rewire in an email. “This extreme legislation is not in line with our values as Granite Staters. We believe that medical decisions should remain between a patient and their medical provider, including decisions around abortion care.”

Upadhyay said she has a hard time believing an eight-week ban would pass legal muster, given Roe v. Wade, but she agreed that bills curbing access to abortion care using unscientific time markers are a growing trend.

“Women who are denied an abortion due to gestational age are four times as likely to be below the federal poverty level compared to women who received a wanted abortion,” she said, citing a recently released study published in the American Journal of Public Health

Nearly one in four women in the United States will receive abortion care in her lifetime, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The majority, Johnston said, are mothers who make that decision for the sake of their health and family.

“I often see women who are already mothers and become pregnant again despite using birth control and know that they cannot afford the care of another child at that time. These women are hardworking, may have three jobs, and care for several children as a single parent. Many of these patients do not have health coverage for effective birth control,” she said.

One of Johnston’s patients, for example, was diagnosed with breast cancer early on in her pregnancy. Chemotherapy was needed to save her life but could not be administered while she was pregnant. She made the difficult decision with her husband and physician to end the pregnancy so she could receive crucial medical care and live, Johnston said.

“Even when abortion is outlawed, it does not go away,” Johnston said. “We cannot move back on women’s health. We should move forward towards improved access and coverage of methods that prevent pregnancy instead of criminalizing a safe medical procedure.”