How long will abortion remain legal in NC? State Republicans weigh next steps

A ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy could soon be implemented in North Carolina in wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision. GOP lawmakers aren't planning to seek new restrictions this year.

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Bryan Anderson, WRAL state government reporter,
Laura Leslie, WRAL capitol bureau chief
RALEIGH, N.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Friday to upend reproductive protections that had been in place for almost 50 years could soon limit access to the medical procedure for North Carolina women.

The decision shifts the spotlight to the state legislature and the upcoming general election, where Republicans need to win the vast majority of competitive races to likely impose new restrictions. And it raises the profile of upcoming state supreme court races, which could prove pivotal should challenges arise over state abortion laws.

For now, women in North Carolina still have rights under state law to get an abortion.

But a ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy could soon be on the table if GOP lawmakers successfully relitigate a case that was addressed last year when a federal appeals court ruled the state’s ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court’s decision to end Constitutional abortion protections bolsters the prospects of the ban’s implementation.

Meanwhile, GOP state leaders are planning to introduce new restrictions next year, hoping the November election will give the party the supermajorities needed to easily pass such measures.

The decision is expected to make abortion an animating issue ahead of the November election—one that is expected to motivate voters across the political spectrum to the polls.

“Democrats are going to use this as a rallying cry to get their base out to support candidates that are pro-choice,” said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist, said abortion could motivate both parties. “But the Republicans will see this as a victory, and now the attention turns to state legislative races.”

And on Friday, leaders in both parties quickly underscored the importance of those races.

"We have elections in November and their rights are on the ballot,” U.S. Rep. Deborah Ross, who represents the Raleigh area, told WRAL News. “If our legislature can overturn a veto, their rights will be gone in an instant."

North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Michael Whatley, meanwhile, said he hoped the issue would motivate conservative voters. “We will continue fighting from now through Election Day and beyond to ensure that we have pro-life majorities as we enter a post-Roe future,” Whatley said in a statement.

A WRAL News poll of 1,100 North Carolina adults found that 45% of respondents didn’t think Roe should be overturned while 30% believed it should. A quarter of respondents said they weren’t sure. A plurality of state residents also don’t think states should have the right to determine whether abortion is legal. The poll was conducted in partnership with SurveyUSA between June 8 and June 12.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they’d support laws restricting abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, while 31% were opposed. Asked if they’d back a similar law restricting abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, 45% were supportive and 39% opposed.

‘Profound moral question’ at stake

In a 6-3 decision split along ideological lines, the justices left it to state lawmakers to decide how abortion should be legislated.

“Abortion presents a profound moral question,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion. “The Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion.”

He said previous decisions, including Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, were unconstitutional. “We now overrule those decisions and return that authority to the people and their elected representatives,” Alito wrote.

In 13 states, abortion will be outlawed in most or all cases due to so-called trigger laws set to take effect upon the overturning of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which has generally safeguarded abortion rights since 1973. Abortion could soon be prohibited or severely restricted in several other states.

The high court’s three liberal justices, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, dissented, arguing the decision could have harmful consequences, especially on lower-income women. “At the least, they will incur the cost of losing control of their lives,” they wrote. “The Constitution will, today’s majority holds, provide no shield, despite its guarantees of liberty and equality for all.“

With the North Carolina legislature looking to wrap up its short session in the coming weeks, state lawmakers aren’t expected to immediately take up the issue.

Senate leader Phil Berger has said he doesn’t anticipate taking up any abortion-related measures “regardless of what the Supreme Court does this year.” On Friday, he said he’d seek reinstatement of the law banning abortion after 20 weeks but added that he doesn’t expect “legislative action prior to adjournment.”

House Speaker Tim Moore said abortion will be a top priority for lawmakers next year.

“North Carolinians can rest assured that we are taking the necessary steps to ensure that current restrictions on the books will be enforced,” Moore said. “North Carolinians can also expect pro-life protections to be a top priority of the legislature when we return to our normal legislative session in January."

Gubernatorial power

But while Republicans have full control of the legislature, they lack the supermajorities needed to override vetoes from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Cooper has long rejected bills limiting a woman’s access to abortion, and few Democrats have ever rebuked him.

“For 50 years, women have relied on their constitutional right to make their own medical decisions, but today that right has been tragically ripped away,” Cooper said in a statement Friday. “That means it’s now up to the states to determine whether women get reproductive health care, and in North Carolina they still can. I will continue to trust women to make their own medical decisions as we fight to keep politicians out of the doctor’s exam room."

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, said her group is working to elect candidates opposed to abortion.

"We're actively engaged right now in helping to win pro-life seats in the legislature," Fitzgerald said, adding that Republicans "have to reach a veto-proof majority."

Susanna Birdsong of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic urges those who want to keep abortion legal should turn out to the polls.

"We can keep it that way if we remember that elections have consequences and we vote in November like our lives and our rights depend on it because they do," Birdsong said.

In 2024, a statewide gubernatorial election could also greatly influence abortion access.

Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who is expected to run for governor in 2024, has likened abortion to murder and urged lawmakers to restrict the medical procedure.

In a statement, Robinson said lawmakers should push to ensure abortion is no longer legal for any reason in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.

“Here in North Carolina, this is cause for work, not celebration,” Robinson said. “Currently, in North Carolina, abortion is legal for any reason up to 20 weeks into a pregnancy. This is unacceptable. With the Supreme Court’s decision to return authority over this issue to the states, it will now be our duty to carefully craft legislation that will safeguard the life and health of all our citizens, born and unborn.”

Robinson alluded to his personal connection to the issue, a reference to his regret over a decision he made in 1989 to pay for an abortion for his then-girlfriend and current wife.

“I have experienced the pain of abortion in my own life and know the long-term effects it can have on families,” Robinson said. “This is a huge reason why I fight so hard for the life of the unborn.”

Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, who is also expected to seek his party’s nomination for governor, reminded residents that abortion remains legal.

“If we want to keep our freedoms under state law, then we have to elect state officials who commit to protecting them,” Stein said in a statement.

Moore and Berger sent Stein a letter on Friday asking him to lift the injunction currently barring the full enforcement of our State's abortion restrictions.

Judicial contests

A pair of state Supreme Court races this year could also decide the future of abortion legislation in North Carolina.

North Carolina judges are chosen in partisan elections. If state Republicans gain a supermajority in the legislature, and if they pass laws restricting abortions, those laws would likely be challenged in courts. Many of the state’s recent political battles, including those over voter identification requirements, redistricting and education funding, have been fought in the state’s highest court.

Justices who are registered as Democrats currently have a 4-3 edge, though two of their current seats are up for grabs. Sam Ervin, a Democratic incumbent on the state’s highest court, is running against Republican Trey Allen, a lawyer with extensive administrative experience but no judicial experience.

Allen is running with the support of Republican state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby.

The other contest features Republican Richard Dietz and Democrat Lucy Inman, both of whom are members of the Court of Appeals. They are vying for the seat of retiring Democratic state Supreme Court Associate Justice Robin Hudson.

Senate candidates

At the federal level, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cheri Beasley and her Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, also weighed in on the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“The Court's ruling correctly empowers the people’s representatives in each state to decide how best to protect unborn lives,” Budd said in a statement. “As a conscience-driven pro-life advocate, I will continue to support protections for unborn children everywhere."

Budd has signaled his opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, while Beasley has pushed back on abortion limits.

Beasley called the Supreme Court ruling “wrong and dangerous” and said she “will not hesitate to stand up for Americans’ freedom to make our own decisions about our own families.”