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'Life begins at conception' bill sparks emotional, philosophical debate at NH State House

Senior Political Reporter

February 20. 2014 6:43PM

CONCORD – Legislation addressing the age-old question of when life begins brought the staunchest advocates on either side of the abortion issue to a New Hampshire House committee public hearing Thursday.

House Bill 1504 would set state policy to say that "human life is deemed to exist from conception." The sponsor, Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, said the bill was filed in response to what he views as a rising trend of "pre-selecting more individuals" to be aborted based illnesses and deformities to increasingly random reasons.

Hoell told the House Judiciary Committee his bill is not intended to make criminals of women who have abortions. He pointed out that the bill says, "Nothing in this (bill) shall be construed to authorize the prosecution of any woman for the death of her unborn child."

But asked whether it could lead to the prosecutions of physicians who perform abortions, Hoell said, "The bill doesn't anything about that," leaving it an open question.

Sarah Persechino of NARAL Pro-Choice New Hampshire called Hoell's bill "the most brazen attack we've seen on reproductive rights."

She said that while abortion opponents across the country "have imposed as many restrictions on abortion services" as possible, "'personhood' measures like HB1504 demonstrate one of the most extreme attempts to deny a woman's right to choose."

The bill, entitled the "All People Created Equal Act," has little chance of passage in the House, but, whether intended to or not, it will put lawmakers, especially Republicans, on record on the always-emotional issue as elections approach.

The bill states that 'pre-born humans with disabilities are being aborted at an alarming rate" and that, "on average two out of three babies screening positive for Down Syndrome are terminated."

It finds that "current reproductive technology" makes it easier to identify gender, and as technology broadens, other characteristics of a fetus will be identifiable, "each of which will have varying levels of social acceptance, and, therefore give certain pre-born humans more or less opportunity to be permitted to live beyond the womb."

The bill also cites "new genetic screening capabilities," which, it says, will lead to "the practice of identifying and discarding those pre-borns deemed 'defective' or 'deformed' will likely escalate as new genetic marker are identified."

The bill states that, "historically speaking, genocide and eugenics programs begin with devaluing a category of human beings. If we deny some humans their right to live on the basis of their dependence on others, their burden to the economy or the environment, or their ability for self-awareness, then all humans become expendable in the name of the 'common good.'

Put simply, said Hoell, "It gives everyone an equal right to life. It sets everyone on an equal playing field."

While the bill sets out a general philosophy for the state, it is silent on what Rep. David Woodbury, D-New Boston, called "the real world effect on people living in New Hampshire.

"How would life be different" for them if the bill passed, he asked.

Hoell said he hoped passage "would begin the foundation of how we think about treating individuals. I see it in the same vein as civil rights, that everybody deserves to be treated equally."

Hoell acknowledged that the abortion issue has been and will continue to be addressed by the federal courts, but said he there is nothing to stop state legislatures from stating and acting on their individual beliefs and policies.

But committee members probed the practical effects of such a law.

Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, asked Hoell whether there is a "difference when life begins and when legal rights begin.

"What's we're saying is this is another human and that human has the same right as any other young child in the eyes of society," Hoell answered.

Persechino of NARAL said that in 2011, 14 state legislatures introduced 26 "personhood" measures, and nine more considered ballot measures.

"So far, none of these initiatives have been successful," she said. "But if anti-choice forces pass a 'personhood' measure in just one state, that's all it will take to start a legal challenge to Roe Vs. Wade."

Joining Hoell in backing the bill was long-time pro-life advocate Rep. Kathleen Souza, R-Manchester, who said it "presents the truth, and when people think about the truth, it may take a while but eventually it does get through and it does have consequences down the road."

If the bill becomes law, she said, "It will lead to something. I'd like it to lead to the overturning or 'Roe Vs. Wade.'" She said she knows it may take a long time and be a difficult fight, but she noted that "the Berlin Wall came down."

John Raby of New London said the bill "disrespects women to make their own decisions and also intrudes on their most intimate decisions.

Noting the right-to-life movements' concerns for the unborn, he said, "I wish in this country we had equal solicitude for people once they are born."

Kurt Wuelper, president of New Hampshire Right-to-Life, "We already have people who have severe disabilities and who can't take care of themselves. We don't call them non-persons because they need the full support of the community around them. The pre-born are similar. They are very highly dependent."

But Linda Griebsch of the Joan G. Lovering Center in Greenland said the bill "creates more problems than it solves and there are a lot of questions unanswered with this bill. A bill that creates a more question and problems that it solves is a serious matter to be considered."

The judiciary committee will vote on a recommendation on the bill for the full House in early March.

On a related issue, the House Health and Human Services Committee voted 17-0 to recommend House Bill 1501 be killed by the full House.

House Bill 1501 would require the licensing of "outpatient abortion facilities" by the state Department of Health and Human Services. Licensing such clinics was promoted by former New Hampshire Republican candidate for governor Ovide Lamontagne, who is now general counsel for Americans United for Life, in an opinion piece in the New Hampshire Union Leader in January.

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England praised the unanimous vote.

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