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On a nearly party-line vote, the North Carolina House of Representatives approved sweeping changes to the state’s abortion laws.
By Rose Hoban and Holly West
With only one Republican dissenting from the majority, members of the North Carolina House of Representatives voted Thursday afternoon to enact sweeping changes to the state’s abortion regulations.
Senate Bill 353, a bill originally dealing with motorcycle safety, was quickly amended Wednesday to add a number of provisions carried over from a bill passed by the Senate just before the July 4th holiday.
With the galleries overlooking the House chamber filled to overflowing with both supporters and opponents of the bill, the debate – at times tense – lasted almost three hours and was largely civil.
No amendments were offered during the debate.
“Roe v Wade will still be legal,” said bill sponsor Ruth Samuelson (R-Charlotte). “But … the fact is that problems do exist in our abortion clinics and we need to address some of those.”
Republican members pointed out that some clinics in the state have had problems and that two had recently been shut down because of violations. One has reopened; the other plans to reopen.
“The system is not holding these clinics accountable,” said bill sponsor Rep Jacqueline Schaeffer (R-Charlotte). “Shutting them down time and again, time and again, shows that ultimately these clinics are not operating the way they need to be operating.”
“This bill is just another ploy to control women’s abortion rights by imposing excessive and unnecessary requirements,” said Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D-Wilson).
“The requirement of raising clinics to the standards of ambulatory surgery centers has been eliminated,” she said. “However, instead, the authority has been placed with the Department of Health and Human Services to apply requirements for the licensure of ambulatory surgical centers’ standards.
“This could still close clinics in North Carolina, depending on what the department decides to do.”
Democrats also complained about the process that created the Senate bill last week and the bill being debated.
“This bill, the way it was handled, makes it clear to me that it’s about politics,” said Alma Adams (D-Greensboro). “It’s not about women’s health; it’s not about safety.
“We’ve made a mockery of women’s health and safety by taking a motorcycle bill and gutting it in order to pass the most sweeping legislation to affect women’s lives.”
Those arguments defined the parameters of the debate, with the majority claiming that safety in abortion clinics is lacking and that standards “need to be brought into the 20th century,” while the minority expressed frustration about process and the eventual limitation of abortion they felt would come from the bill.
In other states, similar legislation has had the effect of closing some clinics and forcing others to spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in upgrades. Many similar bills are tied up in court challenges.
National medical organizations such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists oppose bills similar to SB 353. North Carolina’s state medical societies have not weighed in on the bill.
As they have throughout the week, protesters opposing the bill, dressed in pink, jammed the galleries and milled around in the hallway outside the House chamber.
There were also some bill supporters, dressed in baby blue, but they were easily outnumbered by the pink-clad protestors. Few supporters were willing to give a comment.
But protesters were vocal.
“If they’re that concerned and they want to cite violations in these clinics and use them as a justification for shutting them down, I would say go check out most private OB offices in this town, in any town, in any state and check out how they sanitize their probes,” said Deborah Everett, who works as an ultrasound technologist in Johnston County.
She said she had worked as an obstetric sonographer for 30 years.
“I believe these clinics have been targeted and they are being held to a different standard,” Everett said. “And that’s very, very troubling to me.”
None of the observers could leave the gallery without forfeiting a seat, or a place to stand. Some tweeted their frustration at watching legislators eat and come and go on the floor, while they were unable to move.
At the beginning of the debate, House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Cornelius) admonished visitors to respect the chamber.
“Any disruptions from any side of the gallery will result in the expulsion of all people in that side of the gallery,” he said.
The crowd stayed silent throughout the debate, with many videotaping, tweeting and recording the proceedings.
In the end, the bill passed 74-41 and now heads to the Senate. Rep. Charles Jeter (R-Huntersville) was the only Republican who voted with the Democrats.
In an interview late Wednesday evening, Jeter said he had come to Raleigh for different reasons – that he was more interested in jobs than social issues.
At the end of the debate, Tillis took a moment to compliment the gallery for its decorum and respect of the legislative process. But as he spoke, someone began to angrily yell at lawmakers.
Tillis cleared that side of the chamber.
North Carolina Health News live-blogged the debate and provided synopses of almost every lawmaker who rose to speak. You can read at our live-blog here to get a stronger feel for what transpired.