Reps Hall goes pro-life

More than 150 people showed up in Concord on the 47th anniversary of Roe v. Wade to tell a House committee that enshrining abortion in the New Hampshire Constitution is a lousy idea. Out of around fifty people who testified aloud on CACR 14, seven supported the measure, and three of those were sponsors. The rest of the spoken testimony was one big No.

Was that persuasive to the House Judiciary committee? We won’t know for awhile; they’re not likely to vote on the bill for at least a week. For now, the members have plenty to chew on.

So much for the basics. Scroll on for more.

I had planned to make this post somewhat flippant, an in-your-face challenge to the amendment’s advocates. As I composed this, my attitude shifted by the grace of God – certainly not out of any virtue of mine. I realize now that humble gratitude is in order for what I saw and heard and learned.

This isn’t the first time I’ve spent the anniversary of Roe v. Wade in a legislative hearing. As it happened, this was probably the most apt place to be. Now, as 47 years ago, the right to life is being challenged, as “reproductive medical decisions” seek status as “inviolate and fundamental to the human condition.”

I wore two hats at the hearing. The blogger was listening quietly as the lobbyist did her job. I’m communications and legislative consultant with Cornerstone Action, a pro-life nonprofit advocacy organization (which is NOT responsible whatsoever for anything I write on Leaven for the Loaf). I testified against CACR 14 on Cornerstone’s behalf.

How to get a bigger room

I was pessimistic about the potential turnout for today’s hearing on CACR 14, which would make abortion (among other things) a constitutional right in New Hampshire. I went into keyboard-warrior mode a few days ago: The hearing has been scheduled for a room that has enough public seating for 20 people….In a real pinch, if the crowd size justifies it, the hearing can be moved to Representatives Hall. I think a real pinch is in order.

I confess: I was a nag. Sorry-not-sorry. Others chimed in, spreading the word. The result was A Real Pinch.

I was in the hallway outside 208 LOB about 40 minutes before the hearing began, and about 15 people were present, all pro-life and opposed to the bill, many of them first-timers to public hearings. Ten minutes later, there were 30 people, and still not a sign of support for the abortion amendment. People kept coming. When the hearing room finally opened a little before 1 p.m., I quickly signed in and found a place to stand in the back. A few minutes later, a legislator came in and advised the committee chair that about 100 people were in the hallway waiting to sign in.

That settled it. Rep. Marjorie Smith, chair of the Judiciary Committee, announced that the hearing was being moved to Representatives Hall.

So this is a good thing, right?

I was happy at the turnout. I’m not giving away any secrets when I say it’s rare to see a pro-life presence dominate a hearing in this abortion-friendly state. The crowd was a sight to savor.

But where were the usual suspects, so to speak? I didn’t see the usual representatives of Planned Parenthood and ACLU-NH. (We of the orange-badged-lobbyist brigade know each other by sight if not by name.) Another lobbyist told me that one of them came in, signed in quietly without asking to testify aloud, and left as quickly as she came. I wasn’t close enough to the sign-up sheet to verify the report.

What’s up? Have the sponsors of CACR 14 finally come up with something too extreme even for typical allies?

Ask me that again after the House votes on it. For now, while I was surprised by the next-to-no-turnout by CACR 14 advocates, I don’t think it reflects any softening on their part. Perhaps they’re saving their energy for next week’s bills including a prenatal nondiscrimination act. (That post comes later.)

Don’t think that the overwhelming pro-life presence today means the tide has turned in Concord. As important as public hearings are, I think 80% of the influence on legislators comes outside the hearings: one-on-one conversations, relationships and trust built over time, personal stories shared. Even now, as I’m basking in the rosy glow of a good turnout, committee members are being swayed by things not in evidence at the hearing.

Quibbles aside, the turnout by pro-lifers was great. The encouragement people gave each other was powerful. The committee saw a crowd it didn’t expect. That’s all good.

Welcome to Concord

To the casual observer, the size of the crowd might have been impressive. To me, satisfied as I was at the size of the crowd, the most amazing thing was the number of people coming to participate in a public hearing for the first time.

They heard about CACR 14, they saw its risks, and they dropped whatever they had to drop to get to Concord on a workday so they could sit in a hearing for two and a half hours and speak for maybe two minutes.

Some were visibly nervous as they stood at the microphone to testify. (In Reps Hall, unlike in a regular committee room, one must stand to testify rather than sit at a desk.) How well I remember that feeling from 30 years ago, when I was a neophyte activist mommy with kids in tow. Take my word for it: it gets easier.

How did all these people hear about CACR 14? I did my bit to spread the word, and so did Cornerstone and New Hampshire Right to Life and the Diocese of Manchester, and so did the savvy pro-lifers who play social media like a violin. I tried to meet as many people as I could, to hear their stories and thank them for coming.

“I’m retired now,” one man told me. “I’ve got no excuse for staying home.”

A young man moving with the aid of a wheelchair testified, as did his mother. They took exception to the idea that having a disability made life less valuable. They know that CACR 14 would leave no room for limiting eugenic abortion.

A woman waiting in the hall long before the hearing told me quietly about the abortion she experienced in her youth, without meaningful informed consent – “I just signed things” – and with no warning of the physical and emotional pain she was to endure. It took guts for her to share that story later with the whole committee. She’s opposed to CACR 14. She knows that informed consent provisions will never be strengthened if CACR 14 goes into effect.

Also new to testimony was a retired Marine. He had written testimony for the committee and he was allowed two minutes to summarize it out loud. No sooner had he started than he was overwhelmed with emotion that left him nearly unable to speak. “I paid for an abortion,” he managed to say. He didn’t want his child to be aborted, but the mother of the child did, and so he paid. He opposed CACR 14, possibly because he knows that someone else’s reproductive medical decision had implications for more than just that one person.

One of the people who testified was Katie Glenn of Americans United for Life, a national pro-life advocacy group. This was her first visit to the New Hampshire State House. I told her she was seeing New Hampshire people at their best. We have a citizen legislature, and today the orange-badged lobbyists were hugely outnumbered by citizen advocates.

Supporters were there, too

Three of the bill’s sponsors made their pitch for support. Rep. Timothy Smith explained the broad array of reproductive choices that the amendment would put safely out of reach of policymakers, abortion being only one of them.

Rep. Sherry Frost said the state should not interfere with a woman’s reproductive decisions, beyond making sure women have “qualified practitioners.” Lost on her was the irony that New Hampshire has no restriction on who may perform abortions, making “qualified practitioners” something less than a right for an abortion-minded woman.

Rep. Chuck Grassie assured the committee that if CACR 14 were in place, “Roe v. Wade would still be the law of the land.” Yes, but… When I testified later on Cornerstone’s behalf, I pointed out that CACR 14 constituted a rejection of one of Roe’s key holdings: that the state may assert an interest in protecting prenatal life in the later stages of pregnancy.

Also in support: a Unitarian Universalist pastor from Manchester, and a foster dad concerned about the fact that in his area, there are three pregnancy care centers but only one abortion provider. Does he think CACR 14 would help build a culture that would change that situation? He could be right.

A woman testifying late in the hearing was visibly angry as she spoke in support of the proposed amendment. She was offended by what she called “all the God talk” from people who cited their faith in God as foundational to their pro-life actions. “I thought we had separation of church and state.”

Then she said, “I haven’t heard anything about the women,” meaning women seeking abortion. “I hope you’re happy saving the cells.”

I sense a lot of pain in there.

This was after testimony from women who work at pregnancy care centers, from women who have had abortions and who related how they themselves were affected, from a physician who attested to the value of mother and child, from advocates who warned that CACR 14 would endanger women’s health protections.

Looking ahead

As I noted earlier, the committee will vote on its recommendation later.

What I hope for in the meantime is that hearings on other life-issue bills will inspire the same kind of involvement we saw on the 22nd.

I hope every first-timer will feel comfortable enough to come back again.