Senate tacks sweeping abortion legislation onto Sharia law bill

Abortion clinics would have to be licensed similarly to ambulatory surgical centers under the bill. The original bill would prohibit the use of foreign law, such as Sharia Law, in North Carolina courts.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Senators on Tuesday tacked a suite of new restrictions and regulations pertaining to abortion clinics onto a bill dealing with the application of foreign laws in North Carolina family courts.

The measure was unveiled unexpectedly during an unusual late-day committee meeting. It combines several bills in different stages of the legislative process into one omnibus measure. 

"It just took a while for there to be a consensus of support for it within our caucus," said Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, chairman of the Senate Judiciary 1 Committee. "Sometimes these things come together at the last minute."

Newton's committee was originally scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. That meeting was canceled. 

The Senate met for much of the day, handling a variety of bills in other committees and on the floor. Just before 5:20 p.m., Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, announced a recess and said the Judiciary 1 Committee would meet at 5:30 p.m.

Until then, the committee's calendar listed only House Bill 695, which prohibits the recognition of foreign law, such as Islamic Sharia law, in family courts. That measure was controversial when it cleared the House in May, with opponents fearing it could interfere with recognition of U.S. law in foreign courts.

However, when the committee convened at 5:30 p.m., it quickly took up an amendment to revise the bill to include the regulations on abortion.

"They're doing it quietly on Fourth of July weekend because they've seen what's going on in Texas and know that women will turn out," said Melissa Reed, vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood Health Systems, referring to the protests surrounding a similar bill in Texas. She said Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights advocates had no idea the measure would be taken up Tuesday. 

Lobbyists with nonprofits that have religious or moral purposes, including the Family Policy Council, Christian Action League and North Carolina Values Coalition, were in the room for the committee debate and the subsequent Senate floor debate. Senators noted that those lobbyists were given notice of the bill and its contents ahead of time.

Among the abortion provisions:

CONSCIENCE PROTECTION: Any health care provider, not just doctors and nurses, would be allowed to opt out of providing abortion-related services.
ABORTION FUNDING LIMITS: The bill would prohibit health plans offered on the federal health care exchanges from offering abortion coverage. It would also prohibit state funds from being spent for abortions, except to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape or incest.

It would also prohibit city and county health plans from offering abortion coverage more extensive than the coverage offered to state employees. The State Health Plan does not cover abortions, except in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother.

SEX-SELECTIVE ABORTIONS: The measure prohibits doctors from performing an abortion if they know the woman seeking it is doing so because of the gender of the baby.

"This is something we see happening across the country," said Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, R-Mecklenburg. She authored the original family law provisions in the bill as well as some of the abortion measures. 

Reed disagreed, saying doctors cannot determine gender until five months of pregnancy without expensive tests. While sex-selection abortions are practiced in other parts of the world, they are not common in the United States, she said. The bill would create an adversarial relationship between doctors – who could be sued under the measure – and patients, she said, adding that it could also prompt some doctors to engage in racial profiling against women who are from parts of the world where sex-selection abortions are practiced.

DOCTORS: Doctors would be required to remain in the room for the entire abortion procedure, whether surgical or medical (chemically induced).

A medical abortion is performed by taking one pill, waiting two days and then taking a second pill that contracts the uterus. It's unclear for how much of that process the physician would have to be present.

Roughly half the abortions performed in the state are medical abortions. The practical effect of the rule would be to limit the number of abortions any one doctor could provide.

"The information that I've seen is that (medical abortions) are even more dangerous than surgical procedures," said Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, a primary sponsor of the Senate version of the bill.

Reed countered, "That's not true, they're extremely safe."

TRANSFER AGREEMENTS: Abortion clinics would be required to have "transfer agreements" with local hospitals.

Reed said the measure would essentially limit how many clinics could operate because some hospitals would refuse to engage in such agreements. It's meant to be similar to provisions in other states that require doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. Hospitals, Reed said, would have little incentive to sign such agreements. 

LICENSING: Abortions clinics would be required to go through a licensing process similar to that of outpatient surgical clinics.

Daniel said the provision "ensured we don't have two different state standards" for outpatient clinics. 

"These are really safety procedures," he said.

Reed said clinics that offer procedures with higher risk than abortion, such as oral surgery or colonoscopies, don't fall under such provisions.

"They're really putting a barrier in the way to access," Reed said, noting that it would make clinics more expensive to operate.

According to legislative staff, there is one abortion clinic in the state that meets the outpatient surgical standard. Reed said Planned Parenthood's four North Carolina clinics do not meet the standard.

The amended bill tentatively passed the full Senate on Tuesday. The Senate will debate the measure again Wednesday before returning the bill to the House.  

On the Senate floor, Democrats objected to the measure being pushed through so unexpectedly. 

"This bill and this process is not worthy of this chamber," said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake.

Stein said the process circumvented the public's ability to learn about legislation before it was discussed and voted on.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger acknowledged the objections from Democrats but said that every senator who wanted to speak on the bill had a chance to do so.

"We've never cut them off from making their points," said Berger, R-Rockingham. 

As for amending the bill and bringing it to the floor right away, Berger said, "It is not something that is unheard of. It is not something that is inappropriate, in my opinion."

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