By Rose Hoban
House lawmakers put a new bill that would increase the waiting time for obtaining an abortion from 24 to 72 hours on the fast track Wednesday.
The bill, which was heavily edited before being heard in the House Health Committee on Wednesday morning, would also require physicians performing abortions after 18 weeks to submit documentation supporting their decision-making and diagnosis to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Doctors would also be compelled to submit findings and analysis on which the doctor based a “determination that continuance of the pregnancy would threaten the life or gravely impair the health of the woman for women receiving an abortion” after 20 weeks gestation.
When the bill was filed in early April, it also contained provisions that would restrict physicians and medical students at UNC and East Carolina University hospitals from participating in abortion procedures. The provisions had raised objections from university-based academics who argued the prohibitions could impair the ability of obstetrics and gynecology students to earn their board certifications.
That language was missing from the bill presented in committee Wednesday morning, and the bill was renamed to emphasize the 72-hour waiting period for abortion services.
Under the current law, women seeking an abortion are permitted to get preliminary information and give consent to the procedure by telephone. The extension of the waiting period in HB 465 to 72 hours would retain the ability to give consent by telephone.
“The goals of this bill are really to protect women and to respect women and their choice,” said bill co-sponsor Rep. Susan Martin (R-Wilson), arguing that the bill does not inhibit the ability of a woman to choose.
“But it is a very difficult and permanent decision,” she said. “Out of respect for the importance of that, we believe that more time is very important, because you can’t go back on this decision once it’s made.”
Bill supporter Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, argued that the 72-hour delay “gives a woman more time to make an important decision that will impact the rest of her life.”
“It gives her an opportunity to consider the facts. It’s informed consent,” she stated.
Chapel Hill-based obstetrician Amy Bryant disagreed. After the meeting, Bryant said in her experience her patients have already thought through the decision by the time they meet with her.
“It’s my job as a physician to make sure [women] are clear about their decision,” she said. “I counsel women all the time that maybe you need a little extra time, and some women take it and some women don’t.
“That extra time should be a decision that women should be able to make for themselves.”
Research on the effects of extended waiting periods has been mixed. Three other states have 72-hour waiting periods, while a total of 25 states have at least a 24-hour wait before a woman can obtain a procedure.
Research conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion statistics, found that increased waiting periods in Mississippi did result in a drop in abortions in that state, but that some women had traveled out of state to obtain an abortion. In Mississippi, pre-abortion counseling must occur in person, not over the phone. However, in other states the effect of waiting periods on the number of abortions was negligible.
The report, done in 2009, found that the waiting periods delayed access to care for some women and increased the proportion of second-trimester abortions.
Bryant was one of a group of physicians and others who had signed up to register their opposition to the bill but who were unable to be heard.
When asked by Rep. Verla Insko (D-Chapel Hill) why the committee was not hearing alternating pro and con positions on the bill, Chair Rep. Brian Brown (R-Raleigh) responded that he was hearing testimony in the order in which speakers had signed up.
Brown also told the committee that time for public comment on the bill would be limited to less than 45 minutes before taking a vote. As a result, only one opponent of the bill gave public comment, followed by people speaking in support, or reading letters in support, of the bill.
Melissa Reed from Planned Parenthood South Atlantic called the hearing’s process “deeply flawed.”
“We had doctors who had traveled from across the state to speak in opposition to this bill, as well as professional organizations, and we were unable to speak, despite Rep. Insko asking for a balanced approach,” Reed said.
Other lobbyists noted that the morning’s procedure was unusual. Brian Lewis, who represents NARAL-Pro Choice North Carolina, said opponents and supporters of controversial bills often negotiate speaking schedules ahead of a committee when they know time will be limited.
“Usually on a bill like this, we go back and forth between pro and con speakers,” said Lewis. “Or else we agree to take the top three speakers from each side and go back and forth.”
Reed said she hoped all sides would have the opportunity to speak at the bill’s next planned stop, a house judiciary committee. But by the end of the day Wednesday, the requirement to send the bill to the judiciary committee had been removed.
The bill is scheduled to be heard on the House floor Thursday morning, where it is expected to pass.