RALEIGH - The N.C. House of Representatives passed sweeping new abortion legislation Thursday after an emotional and partisan debate, voting 74-41 to have state bureaucrats review and strengthen clinic regulations.
The vote came after a week-and-a-half of legislative wrangling and a rare threatened veto from Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who found himself at odds with social conservatives in the General Assembly's GOP majority. Senate Bill 353, a mish-mash of new clinic standards, health insurance restrictions and even a section on motorcycle safety, moves now to the Senate, which passed a similar abortion bill last week.
McCrory hasn't spoken publicly on the issue since threatening Wednesday to veto the Senate bill. But the House made its changes that same day, after talking to administration officials.
Republicans behind the bill said it was needed to upgrade clinic regulations in the wake of horrific discoveries at a Philadelphia abortion clinic, detailed earlier this year in the murder trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell. North Carolina hasn't updated clinic regulations since 1995, and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos testified this week that it's "unrealistic" to leave them unchanged.
Democrats blasted the bill as an obvious push to shut down abortion clinics by requiring cost-prohibitive standards on par with those of a surgery center instead of an abortion provider, where a drugs are often used to induce abortion. They said medical professionals, as well as Planned Parenthood and other abortion-rights groups, weren't at the table as Republicans developed the bill in secret.
"The bill is a decoy," said state Rep. Alma Adams, D-Guilford. "(Clinics) will be put out of business. I truly believe that this bill is about limiting choices for women."
Republican women in the House pushed back hard against that notion over three hours of debate, and as a crowd of people on both sides of the issue looked down from the House gallery.
"This is not about shutting down centers," said state Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg and one of the bill's chief proponents.
"Women will still have the right to choose," Samuelson said. "But as a result of this bill they will have the right to make that choice in a safe facility."
Adams was one of several minority members to call out GOP members for failing to prove that North Carolina abortion clinics are unsafe now. Some anecdotal evidence was given for in-state problems, but Samuelson said it was the Gosnell case that opened people's eyes to the need for more scrutiny.
Both sides noted that the state shut down two clinics, at least temporarily, earlier this year. Depending on who was talking, it either showed that current regulations work, or that more stringent rules are needed.
The bill section that generated the most debate orders the Department of Health and Human Services to and ramp up regulations on abortion clinics, potentially bringing many of them up to the higher standards faced by ambulatory surgery centers. It would also require physicians to be physically present for the entirety of a surgical abortion and for the initial dosage of drugs that cause a non-surgical abortion.
But the bill has other sections, most of which passed the House earlier this year, before the Senate re-opened the debate by calling for the higher regulations. Those older sections would:
- Allow any health care professional, instead of just doctors, to decline to assist in an abortion if it violates their conscience.
- Forbid abortions when the primary reason for that abortion is the unborn child's sex.
- Forbids cities and counties from covering abortion in employee insurance plans, except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is in danger.
- Applies the same prohibition to insurance policies sold through the government health insurance exchange that will be established later this year as part of the federal health care reforms known as Obamacare.
The bill also has a section dealing with motorcycle safety, which is a result of a legislative move the House used to advance the bill. This tactic is used to get around legislative rules that come into play near the end of legislative session.
The Senate used a similar strategy last week, pasting abortion regulations into a bill that had previously banned the use of foreign laws, such as Islamic shariah, in North Carolina courts.
The odd juxtapositions led to derision and complaints about process and transparency, in part because both bills caught many at the statehouse by surprise.
In the end, the House made small changes to the Senate bill, softening the ground rules the Department of Health and Humans Services would use in its review and stipulating that new rules shouldn't “unduly restrict access” to abortions. Samuelson said the legislature may also consider new DHHS funding to speed up routine clinic inspections.
Wos told legislators this week that those inspections are only done every three to five years now, because of manpower.
A number of Democrats used the debate to call for a broader strategy to fight poverty, which they pegged as a primary reason for unplanned pregnancies.
State Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, was one of several Democrats to suggest that, if the GOP truly cared about women's health, it would have expanded the state's Medicaid program earlier this year, giving an estimated 500,000 more people access to the state-and-federally-funded health insurance program.
Speaker of the House Thom Tillis admonished Brandon, saying he had strayed from the bill's topic. But state Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, made a similar argument, calling on the state to focus on poverty and teach young people about contrception.
"Ladies and gentlemen, wake up," she said. "North Carolina has a huge problem with poverty. And that's where these abortions are coming from."
Adams closed her remarks by saying the bill would make abortion clinics so rare as to push women into "the dark alleyways" of black market abortions. Abortion rights groups have said the bills could close all but one abortion provider in the state, since only one meets the state's current standards for ambulatory surgery centers.
"What a terrible day for North Carolina women," Adams said Thursday. "Shame on us. Coathangers. Do we want that blood on our hands? I do not."