By Dave Solomon

The Executive Council voted 3-2 on Wednesday along party lines to deny contracts that would help fund two Planned Parenthood offices in the state, in the wake of controversial videos that show national Planned Parenthood staffers casually discussing the sale of fetal body parts for use in medical research.

Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, R-Newfields, ended weeks of speculation about how he would vote, since he is a pro-abortion rights Republican who had supported the contracts in the past.

He said he remains pro-abortion rights and supports the services Planned Parenthood provides, but urged Gov. Maggie Hassan and her administration to find another vendor, in light of the videos. The state Republican Committee had urged a "no" vote by Sununu, a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2016.

Hassan said the vote would cost Planned Parenthood one-third of the funds needed for its Northern New England operations, and leave thousands of women without access to health services such as family planning, cancer screenings and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

The organization, which served approximately 13,000 New Hampshire residents in the past year, gets most of its funding from federal sources. A Republican majority on the Executive Council denied Planned Parenthood of Northern New England funding in 2011, but the federal government contracted directly with the agency to replace the lost state funding.

"To say there is a direct correlation between the number of dollars and number of people served is disingenuous," said Sununu. "The organization has done good work, but I have serious questions about it, especially at the national level."

More than 1,000 calls

Joining Sununu in voting against the contract were fellow Republicans Joe Kenney of Union and David Wheeler of Milford. Voting in support of Planned Parenthood were Democrats Colin Van Ostern of Concord and Chris Pappas of Manchester

Hassan said finding an alternative to Planned Parenthood in a timely fashion was neither practical nor necessary, and that any alternative vendor would face the same political pressures.

"To say that losing a third of your funding won't impact services on its face is a difficult thing to believe," she said. "Voting down this contract will impact services. It will certainly mean fewer cancer screenings, less birth control, less work to control sexually transmitted diseases and more unplanned pregnancies."

Sununu said he'd received more than 1,000 phone calls on the issue, some from pro-choice women, urging him to vote down the contract in light of the videos, which he called "disgusting and horrific."

Executives at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, with offices in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, have said fetal body parts or organs are not harvested or retained for medical research at any of their locations.

"The argument is going to be made by Planned Parenthood of Northern New England that 'We don't do that,'" said Kenney, "but they are part of the same organization, and I think it's extremely inhumane, astonishing and quite frightening that the national Planned Parenthood is actually collecting these fetal body parts ... New Hampshire should step up and push back."

Hassan acknowledged that, "the tone and dispassion of the (Planned Parenthood) employees speaking on those tapes was offensive and unacceptable, and will be addressed," but said there was no grounds for a criminal investigation of the Northern New England branch as requested by Wheeler.

A contract for $253,900 with the Planned Parenthood of NNE in Claremont was denied, as was a contract for $385,000 with the organization's Manchester office.

The state will help fund the Concord Feminist Health center with a $178,800 contract; the Joan G. Lovering Health Center in Greenland with $134,000; and the Weeks Medical Center in Lancaster with $117,100. Wheeler was the only vote against funding the three health centers, whose family planning contracts were separated from the Planned Parenthood vote.

Controversial prayer

The tone of the council debate was polite but passionate, as supporters of Planned Parenthood clad in pink T-shirts crowded into the meeting room after staging a rally in front of the State House.

The Rev. Garrett Lear, who calls himself "the Patriot Pastor," was invited by Kenney to offer the traditional opening prayer for the meeting. The Rev. Lear, affiliated with the Well of Living Water Christian Fellowship and Outreach Ministry in Wakefield, alluded to the Planned Parenthood debate in his prayer, stating, "If a baby is not safe in his or her mother's womb, nobody is safe anywhere."

That drew a mild protest from Van Ostern at the end of the meeting.

"I enjoy the tradition of having each councilor invite someone to offer a meditation or prayer," he said. "But I was very disturbed this morning that this prayer was used to lobby on one side of the issue. It should be a moment for shared reflection and inclusion."

(c)2015 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)