With much of the legislature gone early for the Independence Day holiday, state senators presented a wide-ranging bill to restrict access to abortion in North Carolina.
By Rose Hoban
Not a week after a Texas senator made national headlines for filibustering a bill that would put considerable restrictions on access to abortion in that state, North Carolina senators introduced a bill that would enact many of the same provisions as the Texas statute.
The Family, Faith and Freedom Protection Act would place limits on the funding of abortions by any health plan that received public money, would require clinics to meet more stringent physical standards, would require doctors performing abortions to be physically present during the entire procedure, would ban the possibility of sex-selective abortion and fine doctors suspected of performing such a procedure and would allow any health care provider to not participate in abortion-related procedures.
“It was really several bills brought together,” said bill supporter Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Morganton). “It was several bills that passed the House and one bill that was a Senate bill. They were just sort of consolidated. because they fit together as a social bill mold.”
He said that as the session was quickly drawing to a close, it “made sense with the consensus that we have in the majority to move forward in this manner.”
The bill passed the Senate, 27-14. One Republican voted with Democrats against it. A final vote on the measure is scheduled for Wednesday. If passed, it will need to go back to the House for concurrence.
During a Tuesday judiciary committee meeting, Daniel emphasized that the bill was designed to protect women’s safety and health.
“We’ve all seen the news, the tragedies that have happened in these abhorrent clinics in Pennsylvania. We’ve even had a clinic in Charlotte shut down recently,” Daniel said, referring to a clinic that was closed and reopened after agreeing to use a different drug regimen. “This is all about patient safety. We’re going to require in this bill that the physician be present during the abortion procedure.
“I think our goal is to have abortion clinics have similar standards to surgical clinics.”
According to legislative staff, only one of the state’s existing clinics currently meets those standards. Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina head Melissa Reed said none of that organization’s four clinics in the state would meet those standards.
“It’s a very serious barrier. The intention of the folks that made the changes to this bill is to end access to abortion in North Carolina,” Reed said. “It would end, basically, access to medical abortion. It could shut down a large number of providers in the state.”
Daniel said the new regulations would also require doctors who administer drugs that result in abortion – a two-drug regimen commonly known as RU 486 – to be with patients as the drug is administered.
The Food and Drug Administration protocol on so-called medical abortion requires the first drug, mifepristone, be given, and then two days later a second drug, misoprostol, is given to help the woman’s body expel the fetus, in a process similar to a miscarriage. That process can take as long as 48 hours.
The FDA also recommends women return to their doctors two weeks later for a checkup.
“I think to characterize RU 486 as just a common drug is a misnomer. It’s a dangerous drug; in many cases, it’s more dangerous than a surgical abortion,” Daniel said. When asked if he had data on the safety of the drug, he said, “You’re free to research it yourself.”
A January 2013 paper published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology examined more than 233,000 medical abortions and found that only six of every thousand women needed medical follow up for complications such as infection. One woman in the study died from a different gynecological problem.
According to Reed, about half of the state’s abortions are performed using the drug regimen, which is approved for use up to about the eighth week of pregnancy.
“There’s a lot of research that shows that women can take misoprostol at home,” said Alice Mark, an obstetrician and gynecologist who works for the international public health organization Ipas, based in Chapel Hill. The organization promotes access to safe abortion around the world.
“When misoprostol was first introduced, women took it in clinics and waited,” Mark said. “But once women were able to take it home, it didn’t change the complication rate. There’s no reason to be in a clinic to compete a medical abortion.”
Mark also said there’s decades of data to show that surgical abortions are safe. A 2012 paper also published in Obstetrics and Gynecology found the rate of death from abortions performed surgically in the U. S. was actually lower than the death rate of women during childbirth.
“The death rate for having a baby is more than 10 times the death rate from having a legal induced abortion,” Mark said.
Mostly empty building
In a procedural strategy known colloquially as a “gut and amend,” senators presented a heavily amended version of the bill – which previously only prevented the imposition of Sharia law in North Carolina – to a Senate judiciary committee in a meeting held at 6 p.m. on Tuesday night in a largely deserted legislative building. The House of Representatives is not holding full sessions during the holiday week, and many lobbyists, advocates and reporters were not in Raleigh.
“Sometimes these things unfortunately just kind of gel at the last minute,” Newton said after the meeting.
No advocates for abortion access were present at the committee meeting; however, a row of seats in the hearing were filled by anti-abortion activists, who had been seen in the General Assembly building throughout the day.
“It’s a wish list of all the restrictions [legislators have] been trying to get through and weren’t able to during the regular time period of this session,” said Reed.
She said she was cooking dinner when she got a phone call that the bill had been introduced, and immediately came to the Capitol.
During debate on the Senate floor an hour later, Democratic senators criticized the lack of procedure on the bill.
“I wandered into the Judiciary 1 committee, because, you know, it’s the last two weeks of session, so I’ve been here long enough to know that anything can happen, and we’re debating a major piece of legislation,” said Sen. Malcolm Graham (D-Charlotte). “Both Democrats and Republicans are right to debate on this bill. But that right was taken away tonight, even from the members.”
When judiciary committee chair Newton defended the process, he was rebutted by Sen. Josh Stein (D-Raleigh).
“The rules require that when there’s a proposed committee substitute, we get it the night before. Why? So we can look at it and we can talk to people who have concerns about that legislation before we go into committee and debate it,” said Stein, who noted the bill’s language was only available to members as they walked into the committee room.
Cover photo credit: Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina