The six-week abortion ban currently in effect in Texas has a crafty enforcement mechanism: It notoriously allows private citizens to sue abortion providers or people who help a pregnant person get an abortion after six weeks’ gestation, but it does not let them sue the person seeking an abortion. A bill proposed in New Hampshire, now, would let someone sue a pregnant person to try to block their abortion at any stage of pregnancy—even if he merely claims to be the father. It’s a horrific bill that would not only violates people’s bodily autonomy, but could also enable domestic abusers and lead to the criminalization of pregnancy loss.
House Bill 1181 is a so-called paternity rights bill that would allow “biological fathers” to go to court and request an injunction that would prohibit their partner from getting an abortion. A judge has to hold a hearing within 14 days of the petition and if the judge agrees that the pregnant person is likely to seek an abortion, they’d be blocked from doing so. Fathers who are successful in blocking an abortion would need to cover all prenatal medical expenses not covered by insurance and pay $250 a month for “adequate nutrition”—though notably that support ends once the person gives birth.
If the pregnant person doesn’t show up to the hearing, the judge would grant an automatic injunction blocking the abortion—no exceptions. If they get an abortion anyway the court could hold them in “civil or criminal contempt,” without listing specific penalties. There’s an exception for pregnancies that pose an imminent threat to the life of the pregnant person, but that has to go through the judge, which could cause dangerous delays in care.
“Abortion is a time-sensitive issue. If care is delayed by two weeks while a court waits to determine if there’s enough evidence to block an abortion, then a patient might miss their window,” said Leah Cohen, outreach and community director of the Reproductive Freedom Fund of New Hampshire (RFFNH), the state’s only abortion fund.
Cohen told Jezebel that court-imposed delays could force people to travel out of state as only one of the state’s four clinics provides abortion after 15 weeks. “When we fund patients who are receiving care after 15 weeks, they are almost always traveling out of state.”
Josie Pinto, the executive director of RFFNH, noted that, aside from any travel costs, abortion care itself is more expensive as a pregnancy progresses. “How many more barriers are we going to add for an already difficult process?” she asked.
The bill wouldn’t require DNA confirmation of paternity, but if the two people are married, the court automatically assumes that the man suing is the father. Only if the pregnant person denies paternity will the man be forced to provide a DNA sample for paternity testing, which he has to pay for, and submit the results to the court within a 15-day window.
Since paternity isn’t required at the outset, cisgender men could just sue pregnant people and try to delay their abortions until they’re too expensive or too difficult to get, or beyond the state’s relatively new legal limit of 24 weeks, Cohen said. (If men file trolling lawsuits in cases where they aren’t the father, they could delay pregnant people’s care for a month, rather than two weeks.) In this way, the bill functions a bit like the Texas “any random idiot can sue” law.
Frank Knaack, policy director for American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, said the bill is “out of step” with the values of New Hampshire, a state with the motto is “live free or die,” which is emblazoned on license plates. “It gives the abortion patient’s current or former partner, or anyone who claims paternity, power to make a veto over the pregnant person’s decision,” Knaack said. “This is plain and simple deeply disturbing.”
The bill acknowledges the existence of abuse by permitting the pregnant person to see the physician of their choice and attend medical appointments without the father and by graciously allowing them to get a restraining order against the man if necessary. There’s an exemption for pregnancies resulting from rape, but only if the pregnant person “claimed” rape before a legal petition was filed. The end result is to force the pregnant person to co-parent with an abuser.
One of the most sinister provisions, though, says the pregnant person must go to “all appropriate medical appointments” and follow the advice of their doctor to “ensure a safe and healthy pregnancy.” This implies that people could be scrutinized for pregnancy loss during the petition process or later on if they’re forced to continue their pregnancy.
“That’s just another way to put shackles on patients and surveil them,” Cohen said, citing the recent example of Brittany Poolaw, the Indigenous Oklahoma woman who was sentenced to four years in prison after a miscarriage. “It’s really about enabling and emboldening men in New Hampshire to surveil pregnant people.”
Again, the bill doesn’t specify what penalties there would be, if any, if a pregnant person doesn’t attend every single prenatal appointment or has an abortion after a judge instructs them not to, or what happens in the case of miscarriage or stillbirth. Knaack called this lack of clarity “extremely concerning.”
Cohen said the paternity rights bill is just one example of state politicians trying to perpetuate patriarchy and violence. Republicans have defunded access to low-cost birth control, killed a bill that would have banned child marriage, and are fighting for fewer gun laws. “We’re also seeing a very startling pattern of legislation and political maneuvering by the Republican Party in New Hampshire to really reenforce a lot of mechanisms that enable domestic abuse,” Cohen said.
HB 1181 is currently awaiting a hearing in the judiciary committee—and it isn’t something to brush off as a mere messaging bill. Every piece of proposed legislation in New Hampshire, no matter how insane, gets a hearing and a vote in the state house and senate. (Tennessee lawmakers introduced a similar bill in 2021 but it never advanced out of committee.) Plus, state lawmakers earn $100 per year, which limits who runs for those seats. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans even though all four members of the federal delegation (two U.S. representatives and two senators) are Democrats.
Last year, Republican Governor Chris Sununu—a man who calls himself “pro-choice”—signed the state’s first-ever abortion ban, which prohibits abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for non-viable fetuses or pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Sununu also signed a mandatory ultrasound law. State lawmakers have introduced bills this session to add the exceptions to the 24-week ban and repeal it altogether, but lawmakers are also pursuing a “traditional” six-week ban (not like the one in Texas) as well as a bill that would allow health providers to refuse to provide abortion, sterilization, or birth control.
“We’re very much in a real-world situation that other states are in right now where these bills are moving and they’re passing. Everyone needs to be concerned and speaking out against this,” Knaack said.
Things are trending in the wrong direction in the Granite State, Pinto of RFFNH said. “I really want people to know that New Hampshire is an outlier here in the northeast,” she said. “I don’t love how much we’re lumped in with ‘the northeast is totally fine,’ because I think that, in a lot of ways, we’re just a few years behind what we’re seeing down South.”
Knaack, who worked on abortion access in the South for more than a decade, agrees. “When I was first working down there, we were at the point where we were having 20-week bans, having TRAP laws, or having mandatory ultrasounds,” he said. “Now fast forward to New Hampshire, we have a 24-week ban, we have mandatory ultrasound, we have parental consent, we’ve limited public funding for abortion services. This is part of a larger political project that’s alive and well in New Hampshire to move towards the denial of basic abortion services.”