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NH GOP agenda pushes abortion limits for minors

By Norma Love
Associated Press / January 16, 2011

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CONCORD, N.H.—New Hampshire has no law governing abortion, but Republicans believe they have the votes to require minors to notify their parents before obtaining an abortion.

House Republicans' exclusion of a gay marriage repeal from their agenda has overshadowed their inclusion of parental notification as a top priority. They plan to put their collective votes behind passing the limits on abortion they say will be constitutional.

After surveying new legislators in both the House and Senate, abortion rights supporters believe Republicans may have the votes to pass the abortion limits.

"I think they have a shot," said Pilar Olivo, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice New Hampshire.

That means, Democratic Gov. John Lynch could play a pivotal role in whether a bill becomes law.

Four years ago, Lynch made New Hampshire the first state to repeal a law requiring parental notification for teenagers to get abortions. At the time, Lynch said he strongly believes parents should be involved in the decision, but the law was unconstitutional because it failed to protect the health and safety of the young women.

In an interview with The Associated Press last month, Lynch would not say whether he would veto a parental notification bill -- a promise he has made if he is sent a bill to repeal gay marriage. He also would not outline what would be an acceptable bill.

"I am pro-choice," he said after being asked several times. "I'm not going to prejudge the bills until I get them."

New Hampshire's Legislature has a long tradition of supporting abortion rights, but some lawmakers make a distinction between granting those rights to adults as opposed to teenage girls.

House Republican Leader D.J. Bettencourt dismissed attempts to classify parental notification as an abortion issue when he presented the GOP agenda Thursday. Bettencourt said it is a parents' rights issue, not a social issue.

Olivo is hoping Lynch will continue to support teenagers' rights to obtain abortions.

"Governor Lynch has been a great supporter of putting women's health and safety first. We're hoping he'll continue to see that's the right thing to do," she said Friday.

NARAL Pro-Choice America's 2011's guide to state laws says 43 states have parental notice or consent laws. Some require both notice and consent.

In 2003, New Hampshire passed a parental notification law that required abortion providers to notify at least one parent 48 hours or more before performing an abortion on a minor. Republicans dominated the House and Senate then as they do now, but the bill only passed the House by six votes and by one vote in the Senate.

Republican Gov. Craig Benson signed it into law, but it was never was enforced because Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and others filed suit.

It was the first law regulating abortions in New Hampshire since the Legislature -- under Benson's predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, now a U.S. senator -- repealed three criminal abortion statutes dating to 1848.

A federal judge declared the parental notification law unconstitutional in late 2003 because it lacked a provision to forego notification in emergencies where the health of the mother was at stake.

The state appealed and the U.S. Supreme Court sent it back to the federal court in New Hampshire to determine if the law could be salvaged. U.S. District Judge Joseph DiClerico put the case on hold while the Legislature acted.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who was attorney general at the time, led the state's appeal.

The law's supporters tried unsuccessfully to amend it to grant some form of health exception in emergencies. They stressed that parents' rights were at stake.

After Democrats won control in the 2006 election, they moved quickly to strip the law from the books in 2007.

Bettencourt said Thursday that Republicans will file a bill this time that includes a health exception to avoid the pitfalls of the 2003 law.

Olivo said abortion rights advocates will wait to see the bill, but if it should become law they won't rule out suing to stop it from taking effect.

"We can't rule out any strategy. Our priority is for protecting women's health and safety. If it means bringing a legal challenge, we would do that," she said.