New Abortion Stats Dispute Comes Up in Committee

“It’s hard for me to separate statistics from a movement to make abortion more restricted.”

Let those words roll around in your head for a moment. We’ll get back to them.

No, I’m not digging up my notes from HB 158, the abortion statistics bill killed by the New Hampshire House a few months ago. The quote that opens this post is from a hearing on another bill altogether, SB 111, on healthcare data. Having passed the state senate, SB 111 is now in the hands of the House Health, Human Services, and Elderly Affairs (HHS) Committee.

SB 111 was meant to be a housekeeping measure, revising and updating procedures for collection of various health-related data. Take a look at the fascinating NH Health WISDOM web site to get a sense of the kind of information the state tracks. SB 111 was introduced at the request of the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.

Independently, it occurred to several people that with health care data up for discussion, DHHS’s lack of abortion data was a missing piece. Four representatives – Walter Stapleton (R-Claremont), Bill Nelson (R-Brookfield), William Marsh (R-Wolfeboro), and Mark Pearson (R-Hampstead – drafted an amendment to SB 111 for the HHS committee to consider, basically adding abortion to the data covered by the bill.

That is not what DHHS had in mind. Thanks to my day job, I was present when the amendment was introduced at a subcommittee work session. I think “dismay” is the best word for the look on the faces of the DHHS staff present when they heard it.

Some of the state reps weren’t thrilled, either.

To make a long story short, the subcommittee declined to accept the amendment, and instead recommended that the bill as introduced be forwarded to the full HHS committee for a vote on May 7. When that day came, Rep. Stapleton politely brought up his proposed amendment (slightly tweaked and re-numbered since the subcommittee session). After a half hour of discussion, committee chair Rep. Lucy Weber (D-Walpole) decided to put off the vote on SB 111 and any amendments until the week of May 13.

That’s where it stands. I can say with confidence that the underlying bill is not in dispute. Any proposed amendment involving abortion statistics is another story. There are procedural objections to an amendment, but the substance is where one finds the real rub.

During the May 7 committee discussion, Rep. Joe Schapiro (D-Keene) took note in the calmest of tones of what he called efforts around the country to restrict abortion. (Maybe if someone were to tell him about New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts, he’d feel better.) Then came his summation about the amendment: “It’s hard for me to separate statistics from a movement to make abortion more restricted.”

His colleague, Rep. Susan Ticehurst, was noticeably agitated as she registered her opinion about the controversial amendment. “I’m not going to sit here and pretend we’re talking about data.”

Actually, we are. Abortion and data collection are not mutually exclusive. Data collection and privacy protection are not mutually exclusive, either, as SB 111 underscores: it covers many kinds of data the state has collected for years while protecting patient privacy.

Insistence on suppressing data collection regarding one condition suggests fear of what the data will show.

One rep stated that DHHS already collects abortion statistics, but I’m skeptical about that. I’m not aware of any mandatory reporting rule that has gone into effect at the freestanding facilities where most of New Hampshire’s abortions take place. (No one is seriously asserting that hospital records would tell the whole story.) Given the intense opposition from abortion-friendly reps to any suggestion that abortions be counted, I don’t believe New Hampshire makes a serious attempt at present to find out how many induced terminations of pregnancy are happening statewide.

DHHS officials needn’t lose sleep. I expect passage of SB 111, with no provision for abortion statistics. Still, I’m glad that a few representatives are willing to point out the missing piece .