GOP lawmakers look to tighten abortion rules as Democrats protest

Abortion-rights groups want the Republican-led legislature to keep its hands off rules proposed by state regulators for how North Carolina abortion clinics must operate.

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Matthew Burns
Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — Republican legislative leaders say they plan to file further legislation to regulate abortion this year, even as abortion-rights groups called on them to keep their hands off rules proposed by state regulators for North Carolina abortion clinics.

"I'm sure there will be a pro-life bill this year," said House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, R-Wake. 

The state Department of Health and Human Services last month released rules for clinics drafted under a 2013 law that proposed major changes to the state's abortion laws. Several Democratic lawmakers said Thursday that they fear social conservatives dissatisfied with the result will now try to step in and upend the rule-making process by offering stricter regulations.

Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said DHHS consulted with medical experts for months in crafting the new rules, which he said will help protect the health and safety of women seeking abortions.

"Now, in the 13th hour of the process, several Republican members appear ready to pull the plug out from the feet of everyone involved, including the secretary of health and human services and their governor," Glazier said at a news conference.

The proposed regulations would increase accountability and oversight at abortion clinics by establishing governing and quality assurance boards and designating a chief executive to handle day-to-day operations. Each facility also would be required to have a defibrillator on site and would have to provide patients with a contact number staffed around the clock in case of problems after a procedure.

Clinics also would have to try to set up a formal "transfer agreement" with a nearby hospital to admit patients in case of complications. Any clinic that is unable to obtain such an agreement would still be considered in compliance with the rule as long as it could document the attempt.

The North Carolina Values Coalition has said the draft rules don't go far enough, and Glazier said Republican lawmakers are drafting bills that would require abortion providers to have admitting privileges at hospitals, have an anesthesiologist on staff and have a physician stay with every patient for at least an hour after her procedure.

Such laws are commonly called "TRAP" laws. They've been used to shut down clinics in other states like Texas and Mississippi.

"All of those provisions have no medical basis in fact or theory," Glazier said. "The bills that are about to be submitted ... seek governmental intrusion into intimate personal liberties, politicize the medical processes and impose a set of ideological standards of women's reproductive health services in North Carolina."

Values Coalition spokeswoman Jessica Wood said the draft regulations "fall far short of the intentions" of the 2013 law and need to be redone.

"Of course the abortion industry is calling for these proposed rules to remain in place – they helped write them," Wood said in a statement. "We believe there is more to be done in these proposals to improve women's safety in our state's abortion clinics."

Stam, R-Wake, called the draft rules "a slight improvement on current law." While he said he doesn't know of plan to block the rules, he suggested it's likely Republicans may seek additions to them. 

"For example, the draft rules say that clinics are subject to annual inspections, but they don’t say that they shall be inspected annually," Stam said. "The draft rules allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work in abortion clinics. What’s up with that? So, there’s some things missing from those rules."

Dr. Matthew Zerden, a Chapel Hill ob-gyn, said the DHHS draft rules strike "the right balance" between protecting access to abortions and overseeing clinic safety standards.

"Doctors are very much in favor of evidence-based measures that improve safety, but politically motivated regulations have become a serious concern across the country," Zerden said. "The main effect of these laws is that good, safe clinics have been forced to shut their doors."

Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, said a longtime abortion clinic in Asheville closed last July rather than try to fight new rules, forcing women in western North Carolina to travel elsewhere if they want or need an abortion.

"The only people who care about women's health and safety are those who provide the care that women depend on every day and the women themselves," Fisher said. "Those legislators who want to bypass the process that they themselves created are motivated by politics and their ultimate goal – shutting off women's access to safe and legal abortion in North Carolina."

DHHS officials cited "egregious violations of existing rules that revealed an imminent threat to the health and safety of patients" when they closed FemCare, and officials said at the time that the closure was unrelated to the 2013 law.

Glazier said he was "pleasantly surprised" at DHHS' efforts to base the draft regulations on medical evidence that they would boost the safety of abortion clinics, and Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, said lawmakers should approve the new rules and not interfere with the process.

"Who is more competent to set medical standards, doctors and medical experts or politicians?" Woodard said. "It's time to stop playing politics with women's health."

The Democrats said Gov. Pat McCrory, who said during his 2012 campaign that he wouldn't support new regulations that infringed on abortion access, should back up that pledge and reject attempts to override the DHHS rules.

McCrory did not respond to WRAL's requests for comment on the issue. 

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