Raleigh, N.C. — On a party-line vote, state House lawmakers voted Thursday to extend the waiting period for an abortion in North Carolina from 24 to 72 hours.
Supporters say the change will allow a woman seeking an abortion more time to consider her pre-procedure consultation with the physician before making her decision. But opponents say it's a medically unnecessary delaying tactic that disrespects the woman's right to control her own body.
House Bill 465 would also require doctors who perform an abortion during the last two weeks allowed by law to send ultrasounds, measurements and all other information to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
"The point," said sponsor Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, R-Mecklenburg, "is to make sure the physician is abiding by the law," which bans abortions after 20 weeks.
The emotionally charged debate was almost entirely dominated by women on both sides of the issue.
"The poorest decisions that we make are the ones we make under pressure and on impulse," Schaffer told the House. "We want women to be equipped with the right information as they are going to make that decision."
While proponents argued the bill "empowers women and promotes the health and safety of women," opponents argued that it assumes women have not already given the decision a great deal of thought and will act as an additional barrier to access, especially for low-income women who may already face difficulty finding a provider and scheduling the procedure.
The chamber fell completely silent as Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, told the story of having to undergo an abortion while serving in the House due to a life-threatening medical complication caused by her first pregnancy, which was not viable.
"It was awful, it was painful, and it was sad. It was, and is, personal," Cotham told the stunned House. "This decision was up to me, my husband, my doctor and my God. It was not up to any of you in this chamber, and I didn’t take a survey."
Accusing Republican lawmakers of "wanting to play doctor," Cotham argued that the extended waiting period "sends a message of shame to women who may have endured abortion for reasons you don’t know."
“Abortion is a deeply personal decision," Cotham finished. "My womb and my uterus is not up for your political grab. Legislators – you – do not hold shares in my body, so stop trying to manipulate my mind.”
Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, told the story of a nephew and his wife who changed their mind about an abortion after seeing the fetal ultrasound. She said too many women say they didn't have enough information before they underwent the procedure.
"The regret that these women feel is so tremendously psychologically unhealthy when they’ve had abortions and not been given time to consider an alternative. Seventy-two hours is not asking too much," McElraft argued. "To see those fingers and toes in some circumstances – when they’re given the opportunity, so many of them change their mind. Why do we not want them to have the opportunity to change their mind?"
Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Yancey, agreed.
"Seventy-two hours is only three days. I think that’s a good amount of time," Presnell said. "These young girls, when they go in there – very abrupt, very quickly – they make that decision that they’re going to get rid of this baby."
Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, said that assumption is demeaning to women and will pose an additional barrier to women "of modest means" who must often make travel arrangements to reach a provider.
"This bill is intended to protect women from themselves. We certainly can't trust the woman or her family or her doctor or her pastor. The state knows best," Insko said.
Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, tried to amend the bill to remove the requirement that doctors performing abortions near the end of the legal window must send the patient's ultrasound to DHHS for examination.
"There is no other law in North Carolina that requires health care providers to provide copies of X-rays or ultrasounds to the state," Fisher argued. "Such images should remain in the hands of the woman's doctor and personal medical file, not in the hands of the state."
But supporters of the bill argued the ultrasounds would allow state regulators to verify that doctors are not performing abortions later than allowed by law, and the amendment failed.
The legislation now moves to the Senate, where it's expected to pass easily.
The 72-hour waiting period would be one of the longest in the country, joining South Dakota, Utah and Missouri. Several other state legislatures are considering similar extensions.
The North Carolina Family Policy Council, which actively lobbied for the bill, heralded its passage as an "important pro-life measure," while Planned Parenthood, which lobbied against it, said its passage "further proves these anti-women’s health politicians will stop at nothing to chip away access to safe and legal abortion."