Sweeping anti-abortion bill clears NC Senate

With the gallery packed by abortion rights supporters and a protest waged outside the Legislative Building, the state Senate on Wednesday gave its blessing to a series of abortion restrictions.

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Laura Leslie
Matthew Burns
RALEIGH, N.C. — With the gallery packed by abortion rights supporters and a protest waged outside the Legislative Building, the state Senate on Wednesday gave its blessing to a series of abortion restrictions.

The bill, which originally prohibited the recognition of foreign law, such as Islamic Sharia law, in family courts, was overhauled Tuesday with little public notice and converted into an omnibus bill titled the Family, Faith and Freedom Protection Act by adding the contents of various anti-abortion legislation pending in the General Assembly.

Senators voted 29-12 along party lines to approve House Bill 695, which now returns to the House for a final vote on the changes.

Shouts of "shame, shame, shame" rained down on the Senate after the vote. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who oversees the Senate, ordered police to clear people from the gallery before senators adjourned.

Outside, hundreds of protesters dressed in pink and carrying signs chanted, "Not the church, not the state, women must decide our fate."

Katina Gad, 30, of Raleigh, was charged with violating Legislative Building rules during the protest.

Suzanne Buckley, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, called the Senate action "a surreptitious attack on the rights of North Carolina women."

“This package of anti-women bills – so unpopular they needed to be hidden from the public to have a chance at becoming law – could close all but one clinic in the state," Buckley said in a statement. "We’re outraged that this dangerous package of bills was kept from public scrutiny. We will continue to sound the alarm and fight this bill in the House."

Although the House has already passed some of the new restrictions, it's unclear if the chamber will go along with the omnibus bill. The Republican-led House and Senate have already disagreed on several issues.

It's also unclear whether Gov. Pat McCrory would veto the bill or allow it to become law without his signature. He has said he opposes new restrictions on abortion in North Carolina. Republicans have large enough majorities in both the House and Senate to override a veto.

Senate Democrats criticized the bill during nearly two hours of debate Wednesday morning, offering amendments that were quickly defeated and questioning the need to interfere with what they said is a private medical matter.

Mostly, however, they were incensed that the bill was pushed through with little advance notice during the July 4th holiday week.

"We should shake our heads in disgrace for trying to pull a slick one when this is an issue that deserves vigorous public discussion," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham.

Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt predicted the issue would galvanize opposition to Republican legislative action like nothing else has this session.

"You can't turn your back on half the people of this state," said Nesbitt, D-Buncombe.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, chided the Democrats, saying they routinely forced bills through during late-night and last-minute votes when they controlled the General Assembly.

"It’s not fair to sling procedural improprieties at us. It’s been done here for about 250 years," Apodaca said.

The hasty process clearly displeased McCrory, however.

"When the Democrats were in power, this is the way they did business. It was not right then and it is not right now," the governor said in a statement. "Regardless of what party is in charge or what important issue is being discussed, the process must be appropriate and thorough."

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger dismissed McCrory's criticism, saying it's "understandable he's not familiar with" the legislative process. The bill was thoroughly vetted in the Senate, debate wasn't curtailed and many provisions had previously been debated in the House, he said.

"People have had an opportunity to speak," said Berger, R-Rockingham. "People have had an opportunity to make known what their views are."

Supporters say the bill's various provisions ensure improved safety for patients, but opponents say the aim is to close clinics and make it harder for women to obtain legal abortions in North Carolina.

"You are creating standards for clinics that they cannot achieve. It is entirely unnecessary," said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake. "The reason is clear. You are trying to shut down clinics providing women health care options."

Under the legislation, abortion clinics would have to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers. Abortion providers also would have to be present with the patient throughout the procedure, whether surgical or drug-induced. Also, abortion clinics would have to have "transfer agreements" with nearby hospitals, which are roughly equivalent to the hospital granting the physicians admitting privileges.

"We’re not here today taking away the rights of women. What we’re taking away is the rights of an industry to have substandard conditions," said Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke.

Only one of the sixteen abortion clinics now in North Carolina would be able to meet the new requirements, according to legislative staff. A similar law in Mississippi closed every abortion clinic in that state except one, and its fate is being settled in federal court.

Other provisions would allow any health care provider to opt out of providing abortion-related services, prohibit health plans offered on the federal health care exchanges from offering abortion coverage, block state funds from being spent for abortions except to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape or incest and prevent city and county health plans from offering abortion coverage except in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother.

Doctors also would be prohibited from performing an abortion, under the bill, if they know the woman seeking it is doing so because of the gender of the baby.

"I see nothing in this bill that limits my right as a woman to make my choice with my doctor," said Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford. "We need to make it safer for women, and that’s what this whole bill is about."

Stein challenged that claim. 

"A medical abortion - one which is carried out using medication - is five times safer than Viagra," he said. "If you really care about patient safety, is it your position that a doctor needs to be with every man who takes Viagra at the time it's administered?"

Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper noted that other abortion legislation Republican lawmakers have passed in recent years has wound up in the courts, and he said the latest bill likely will as well if approved.

“Restricting the health care rights of women is not only bad public policy, but it will ignite even more constitutional challenges in court," Cooper said in a statement.

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