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N.H. House votes against creating fetal homicide law

Despite the efforts of one lawmaker with a personal connection to the issue, fetal homicide will not become a crime in New Hampshire this year.

Rep. Leon Rideout, a Lancaster Republican, crafted “Griffin’s Law” after his daughter lost a pregnancy in a car accident last year. The bill would have allowed the state to prosecute people who recklessly or negligently cause the death of a fetus on charges of homicide or manslaughter, even if the mother does not die. Thirty-eight states have so-called fetal homicide laws.

“We’re telling mothers and their families that survive, ‘Sorry, no justice for your unborn child,’ ” Rideout said. “Is that what New Hampshire wants to be known as? Is that really the legacy this Legislature wants to leave for itself?”

Under current state law, people who cause a stillbirth or miscarriage can be prosecuted on charges of aggravated assault, but not homicide or manslaughter. Rather than creating a crime of fetal homicide, the House amended the bill to instead give judges discretion to increase penalties in cases of homicide or manslaughter if it also caused a stillbirth or miscarriage. That amendment passed 243-42.

Supporters of the amendment said the bill’s definition of a fetus – it would have allowed prosecution in cases with a pregnancy of more than eight weeks – wasn’t consistent with medical definitions and would grant undue rights to the fetus.

“The bill as written attempts to offer comfort to a prospective parent by granting unto her fetus certain rights. This notion is wholly at odds with New Hampshire tradition,” said Rep. Shannon Chandley, an Amherst Democrat.

Some also said it would remove protections already in place for women who lose a pregnancy between conception and eight weeks as the result of an assault.

Former governor John Lynch, a Democrat, vetoed a fetal homicide bill that passed through both chambers in 2012.

Abortion also played a role in the debate. NARAL Pro-Choice New Hampshire opposed the bill on the grounds it would give fetuses rights that could later allow for restricting access to abortions. Sara Persechino, the group’s policy director, said it created a “slippery slope.”

But during debate, Rideout said the bill was not an abortion bill and pro-abortion rights groups unfairly hijacked his legislation. The amendment was also drafted after a committee hearing on the bill, he said, giving the public no chance to weigh in.

The amendment allows judges the discretion to double penalties for people convicted of manslaughter or negligent homicide of a pregnant mother that also results in a stillbirth or miscarriage.

“Families ask for justice for their unborn children that were taken from them – while the amendment addresses some extended time for crimes against the mother, it provides no justice for a lost unborn child,” Rideout said.

NARAL released a statement applauding the House’s vote on the amendment.

“We can all agree the circumstances surrounding this debate are tragic. . . . What members of the House recognized today is that New Hampshire statute already includes stricter criminal penalties for crimes against women that result in miscarriage or stillbirth, and our current statute achieves this without granting legal rights to a fetus,” Executive Director Laura Thibault said.

Also during yesterday’s session, the House killed a bill that would have required state licensing of health centers that provide abortions, and it sent a bill on gathering abortion statistics to interim study.

Mental health settlement

The House voted 173-125 to spend roughly $11 million in unappropriated money to help pay for the state’s mental health care settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice. Roughly $9 million will go toward increasing access to community mental health programs, and the other $2 million will go toward legal fees.

New Hampshire was found last year to have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act for not providing adequate care to the mentally ill. The suit, filed in 2012, alleged the state needlessly institutionalized the mentally ill instead of giving them access to care in their home communities. More money for the settlement will be appropriated in next year’s budget as well.

The bill does not specify exactly where the money would come from, except to say it would be money not otherwise appropriated. The state has brought in more revenue than expected this biennium, and the most could come from that. But opponents argued the money should come from the state Department of Health and Human Services’ $4 billion budget.

“They have a $4 billion two-year budget. They can surely find $11 million in that budget by prudent expenditures,” said Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican.

Kurk said he wasn’t suggesting not to pay for the settlement. But he did not want to see the money taken from the surplus the state is currently running. Although the state is drawing in more revenue than expected now, that could change as the biennium continues.

Supporters of the bill said failing to give HHS the money it needs now will only cost the state more later.

“Addressing the crisis in our mental health system is one of the most pressing challenges our state faces,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat and chairwoman of the House Finance Committee.

During Wednesday’s session, the House also voted to give $7 million extra from the last biennium’s surplus to HHS for other programs.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify existing state law on the death of a fetus. People who cause a miscarriage or stillbirth can be charged with aggravated assault, regardless of whether the mother dies. They cannot be prosecuted for homicide or manslaughter for causing a miscarriage or stillbirth if the mother does not die.

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