Raleigh, N.C. — Secretary of Health and Human Services Aldona Wos urged lawmakers Tuesday to slow down on a break-neck effort to adopt new restrictions on North Carolina abortion clinics, saying some of the provisions need more study while others need to be clarified.
In an unusual move, the House Health and Human Services Committee held a two-hour public hearing Tuesday on House Bill 695, which was passed last week by the Senate and needs only a concurrence vote by the full House to pass.
House leaders moved the bill back to committee after days of complaints by abortion-rights and good-government advocates, as well as Gov. Pat McCrory, over the Senate's handling of the bill. The Senate used a late-day committee hearing to tack abortion measures onto an unrelated bill without public notice and rushed it through approval in less than 24 hours.
Even with the public hearing, the bill could go before the full House as soon as Wednesday.
Bill sponsors contend that they are trying to improve the safety of abortion clinics statewide by requiring them to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers. Clinics also would have to have "transfer agreements" with nearby hospitals, which are roughly equivalent to the hospital granting the physicians admitting privileges, and physicians would have to be present with the patient throughout an abortion, whether surgical or drug-induced.
"It is not our goal to shut down every clinic in North Carolina," said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg. "What we want to do is make them safer."
"A surgery center should not be allowed to have lower standards just because all their patients are women or because they provide abortions," said Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham. "We’re requiring abortion providers to meet some minimum standards."
McCrory said Monday that he feels some of the provisions go beyond safety and wander into the realm of restricting abortions, which he opposes. Wos echoed that line Tuesday, saying "much uncertainty remains" in the bill's provisions.
"I urge you to follow the governor’s advice and leadership and spend more time studying these issues," she said.
Wos acknowledged that state regulations for abortion clinics need to be updated, saying that they haven't been changed since 1995. But said also noted that DHHS lacks the resources to inspect the clinics more than one every three to five years.
"Some of the most consequential ways we could improve the health and safety of women would really be to dedicate resources to provide more frequent regular inspections and to review our existing regulation," she said.
"We need to ask some serious questions about our regulations. Are the regulations sound? Are the regulations reasonable? And are they being enforced?" she said. "Other parts of the bill are more complex."
Republican lawmakers said they would work with Wos to resolve her concerns by the end of the week.
Reps. Verla Insko, D-Orange, and Beverly Earle, D-Mecklenburg, said lawmakers should provide DHHS with the needed funding to increase inspections of clinics if they truly care about women's health.
"We talk about safety, (but) if we close these facilities, we are talking about sending women back to the back-room type of places that used to exist," Earle said.
Abortion-rights advocates contend that only one abortion clinic in the state currently meets the more stringent requirements called for under the law. State officials said Tuesday that upgrading other clinics would cost $1 million each, in addition to extra operating costs, making it cost-prohibitive for them to remain in operation.
"(The bill) won't decrease the need for abortion care. It will only make it less safe," said Suzanne Buckley, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina.
Similar laws in other states have closed down many or nearly all abortion clinics. Many of those laws are being challenged in federal court.
Tami Fitzgerald, president of the North Carolina Values Coalition, noted that state regulators have shut down two abortion clinics in recent weeks for unsafe practices and urged lawmakers to pass the new restrictions.
"Requiring doctors to be present for abortions is not wild-eyed or crazy," Fitzgerald said.