At the corner of South Street and Middle Road in Portsmouth lie buried beneath the road the bodies of Sarah Simpson, a widow about twenty-seven years old, and Penelope Kenney, a servant girl. They were buried in December of 1739, after their deaths by hanging. Across town in South Cemetery lies Ruth Blay, buried at the bottom of Gallows Hill. According to Carolyn Marvin, in the Hanging of Ruth Blay, Ruth, a thirty-one-year-old schoolteacher, screamed in terror as she was drawn by cart through the streets of Portsmouth to her death by hanging in 1768. What “women’s crimes” were committed by these young women? They had become pregnant.
A ghastly story from the past?
One has only to visit today’s House of Representatives to hear some chilling testimony by some of the current Republican representatives to realize that the attack on women and women’s health care is alive in this century.
It has taken women in this country hundreds of years to attain protections that are inherent in our federal and state constitutions. Now, under the guise of “religious freedom” and “personal liberty,” Republican lawmakers are recklessly determined to take New Hampshire’s women back decades.
In August of 1992, Susan Sarno was hospitalized in Wolfeboro with severe facial injuries requiring 17 stitches to her bloodied and battered face after a beating from her estranged husband. He pled guilty to a misdemeanor and spent only 29 days in jail. After Sarno went public with her story, New Hampshire became a leader in the country enacting laws to protect victims from these heinous crimes.
As if living in a time warp, last year Republican leadership insisted on budget cuts that leave women and children at the hands of their abusers. In recent years, 50 percent of the homicides in New Hampshire were domestic violence related. Our state’s crisis centers are not able to keep pace.
This year, Republicans have filed bills to further erode protection for victims and once again make it easy for abusers to victimize their intimate partners. One bill would prevent police from arresting anyone for spousal battery unless the police saw the assault with their own eyes. Another would make it easier for repeat abusers to violate their restraining orders by limiting police arrest powers.
This week, the House will vote on a bill to repeal the criminal history and protective order check for the sale of firearms. In 2010 NH’s Gun Line law, a program which allows NH to conduct criminal background checks when an individual attempts to purchase a handgun, stopped 370 individuals who could not legally possess a firearm in New Hampshire from making firearm purchases. Once again, repeal of this law is being pushed by a member of Republican leadership and is a real threat to NH women.
This legislative session has seen continued attempts by Republican leadership to defund Planned Parenthood, the only statewide agency capable of delivering necessary health care services to women. At the same time Republican leadership is denying some women contraception coverage.
Under the pretext of religious freedom, Republican legislators are using the Constitution to impose their religious beliefs on citizens. Republican leadership insisted that a House committee pass a resolution urging Congress to reverse the requirement that insurance plans cover contraceptives for women, despite the fact that these drugs are commonly prescribed for the treatment of other health conditions.
The federal policy does not violate any citizen’s basic right to religious freedom. No individual will be forced to buy or use contraception.
Republican leadership shows a complete disrespect for sound public health policy, one that makes contraceptives more affordable and reflects the requirements of the majority of American women regardless of their religious affiliation. Not only have they sent the resolution to Congress, but they also seek to repeal NH’s current law that requires insurance companies that cover prescriptions in health care plans to also provide coverage for contraceptives.
The rights of women today are under attack. Much like Sarah, Penelope and Ruth were persecuted by the state; today under the pretext of religious freedom Republican legislators are denying the personal liberties of women in New Hampshire. This IS about a woman’s freedom to make her own health care decisions, her individual liberties and her right to live without fear.
(Representative Stephen Shurtleff a Democrat from Penacook is currently serving his fourth term on the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. He was the Committee Chair from 2009-2010.)