By Rachel Crumpler
Lawmakers, physicians and members of the public alike say they barely had time to read the bill that would impose new restrictions on accessing abortion before the bill was slated to be heard in the General Assembly Wednesday.
But that didn’t stop Senate Bill 20 from moving quickly even as lawmakers raced to meet Thursday’s “crossover” deadline, when other bills have to get through votes in one of the legislative chambers in order to be considered this year or next.
Less than 18 hours after the bill was unveiled, the 46-page bill was heard for the first time Wednesday morning in the joint Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations Committee.
On Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of people opposing the bill descended on the capitol complex carrying handmade signs and wearing pink T-shirts and white coats to express their support of abortion rights and their displeasure in a sometimes chaotic display of grassroots democracy.
Observers sat in the gallery overlooking the House of Representatives through the afternoon, waiting hours for the legislative process to unfold as members of the chamber churned through more than 50 bills over the course of more than four hours.
At 8:52 p.m. the bill finally landed on the House floor for debate — coming after votes and discussion on dozens of less-anticipated bills. The House gallery remained full into the evening, with additional capitol police officers stationed inside to maintain order.
Bill sponsors fielded numerous questions from lawmakers on all aspects of the abortion bill, including how the exceptions for rape and incest would be judged, increased regulation on abortion clinics and additional requirements for abortion seekers. During the debate, Republicans trumpeted the additional funding in the bill for other health care initiatives intended to support mothers and families.
As debate wrapped up, Rep. Julie von Haefen stood up to submit a constitutional protest, a mechanism to add objection into the official record of the proceedings. As she walked to the front of the chamber, the rest of the Democratic caucus stood as a body and all announced they, too, were joining the constitutional protest before filing to the speaker’s platform to submit their written forms.
Just before 10 p.m., House members passed the bill in a 71-46 vote along party lines. Tricia Cotham, who switched parties less than a month ago, voted with Republicans.
“A process that has us voting on what will be the most important bill we vote on this session, and for a lot of us, for the time that we serve in this building, to be decided in 24 hours is unthinkable,” House Democratic Leader Robert Reives said during a floor speech on the bill.
After the votes were tallied, people seated in the galley erupted into chants of “shame” and “abortion rights now.”
How the day began
Republican lawmakers used a bill on infant safe surrender that had passed both chambers, but needed to be reapproved in the Senate, as a vehicle for the new abortion restrictions. Legislators took the existing bill and added in the new language, a process known colloquially as “gut and amend.”
Because of the way the bill was introduced, Democrats could not offer amendments to the bill — only give an up or down vote. The process also limits the amount of public comment.
Lawmakers have used this process before for controversial bills, including abortion bills, most notably in 2013, when abortion restrictions were added to a bill about motorcycle safety.
Democratic lawmakers in Wednesday morning’s meeting voiced frustration at how SB 20 was introduced in the late evening and the short turnaround time on a complex, controversial bill.
“I just don’t believe this is how democracy should work,” said Reives (D-Goldston) during the meeting.
Rep. Becky Carney (D-Charlotte) said she was already in bed when the text of the bill dropped around 10 p.m. She said she woke up to her emails blowing up.
Members of the public from both sides of the abortion debate packed into the committee room, filling it to capacity. Over a dozen physicians in white coats sat in the gallery of the committee room; five of them spoke in opposition to the bill.
“You see all these white coats? It is really hard to get a bunch of doctors here on such short notice,” said Erica Pettigrew, a family medicine physician in Orange County. “But all of the white coats sitting here are against this bill.
“You don’t see the North Carolina Medical Society supporting this bill,” she continued. “You don’t see the North Carolina OB-GYN Society supporting this bill. You don’t see the North Carolina Academy of Family Physicians supporting this bill. You don’t see public health organizations in our state supporting this bill. There’s a reason for that.”
Sebastian King, with the NC Values Coalition, shared his support for the bill and his personal story. He said his mother got pregnant at age 15 and that she had many people telling her that her life would be over if she had the child. But he said that wasn’t the case — that his mom worked hard to redefine their story.
“I became the first in my family to graduate high school,” King said. “I became the first in my family to graduate college. I’ve started a successful business, and my mom is very successful herself. We have lived the American dream. We have to dispel the rumor that your life is over.”
In contrast, Kelsea McClain from Lee County shared her own abortion story and how the procedure was her only option. She said there don’t need to be any more restrictions on the procedure.
“When I needed an abortion for the first time, I underwent a waiting process of my own creation,” she said. “I didn’t need the state to intervene. I took my time to consider what I needed — what I wanted. I knew I was going to be a child-free person. I knew that children were not in my future.”
Charlotte Driscoll also shared her concerns about abortion access diminishing, in most cases, from 20 to 12 weeks. She said due to the medication she takes for bipolar disorder, most birth control options do not work for her.
“I could easily find out that I’m pregnant outside of that 12-week window,” Driscoll said. “To be honest with you, if I found out I was pregnant at my lowest, I would kill myself. I don’t want to be inflammatory. That’s just the truth.”
Liz Barber, senior policy counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina, said the bill does not give women more options.
“All medical procedures require informed consent, it doesn’t matter what it is,” Barber said. “How many of the thousands of medical procedures do you all politicians dictate what it should say? One. Abortion. How many do you all say it has to be in person? One. Abortion.”
After comments from the public and Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Vickie Sawyer (R-Mooresville), who helped work on the legislation, defended the bill.
“I am confident that this is the best piece of compromise, mainstream legislation that we could put forward,” she said during the committee meeting. “I reject the fact that what I’m hearing today that this is anti-woman and anti-democratic. I definitely reject the fact that your voices haven’t been heard. We heard them during the elections. We hear them today. And we’ll continue to hear them when we override the veto.”
After the meeting, some advocates for abortion rights walked the halls of the legislative building, seeking to buttonhole lawmakers before the House floor vote that took place hours later.
Rally outside the capitol
On short notice, hundreds of abortion rights advocates showed up in force at the state capitol. They filled Bicentennial Plaza, across from the legislative building, to participate in an afternoon rally organized by Planned Parenthood South Atlantic.
That involved many people rescheduling their day to attend, like Kirstin Cassell, a volunteer clinic escort who traveled from Greensboro to voice her concerns.
“The biggest thing about this is we need to trust people to be in charge of their own bodies,” Cassell said. “We select our own health care providers, and we need to be able to make our own choices together with our doctors.”
She said she sees people accessing abortion all the time and fears for people who will no longer be able to access desired care.
Planned Parenthood South Atlantic President and CEO Jenny Black spoke at the rally.
“This is the moment we’ve been preparing for since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and gave state legislators the power over our bodies in our health care decisions, but I want to be real with y’all,” Black said. “This is much worse than we feared. This is no compromise. This bill is a monster abortion ban.”
Black noted that none of Planned Parenthood’s clinics in North Carolina currently meet the new standards and licensing requirements laid out in the bill. The bill also requires abortions after 12 weeks to be performed in hospitals.
Amy Bryant, an OB-GYN who has provided abortion care in Orange County for over a decade, said the new restrictions lawmakers added, such as in-person pre-procedure counseling instead of by phone or online as is allowed now, puts medically unnecessary obstacles in the way of anyone seeking an abortion — even those obtained in the first trimester.
“We know that states with more abortion restrictions have higher maternal mortality rates, higher infant mortality rates and more pregnancy complications,” Bryant said. “This legislation completely ignores the medical evidence.”
Black asserted the new abortion restrictions would disproportionately burden certain groups.
“These burdens fall hardest, as always, on poor and working-class folks, people in rural parts of the state and people who historically and often lack access to affordable health care, including people of color, young people and LGBTQ folks,” Black said.
Four Democratic lawmakers attended and spoke at the rally, including Sen. Natalie Murdock (D-Durham), who said she felt the bill does not reflect what democracy looks like.
“Fund Black maternal health support because mothers and babies are dying,” Murdock said. “Fund paid family leave so Black people don’t lose their jobs simply because they are sick. Provide access to contraceptives so that people can have full control over if and when they have children. Don’t hide it in a monster abortion bill. Do it because we should do it and should have done it a long time ago. “
After the rally, attendees walked to the state legislature to take their presence inside. They stood in lengthy lines at all entrances, waiting to get through security, so they could fill the House gallery.
After a long wait, the abortion bill finally landed on the House floor. Democrats were quick to question aspects of the bill and voice their disapproval.
“The bottom line is that by banning abortion in this way, the government is forcing people into untenable situations with serious consequences for their health, their families, their lives and their futures,” Rep. von Haefen said. “Bodily autonomy and self-determination are fundamental human rights that we should and must respect.”
Minority Leader Reives asserted that the bill is an overreach.
“I can’t speak for women because I’m not a woman,” Reives said. “But I can speak for some minority groups that I belong to, and I would be incredibly offended if somebody walked in to tell me what’s best for me, and that I’m not smart enough to make the decision that I need to make to move my life forward, and that I’m not strong enough to take the consequences that come with that.
“Power is a wonderful thing to have — that we have in this building — to change lives, to change generations. And we can do great things in this building,” he continued. “But the greatest power that we can exhibit as a body is the power of restraint, and I ask today just for restraint.”
In the end, the vote fell along party lines with 71 Republicans voting for the bill and 46 Democrats in opposition. One Republican had an excused absence. To uphold an expected veto, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper would need at least one Republican to defect to the Democrats’ side.
Afterward, Reives said he believed that this restriction was only the first step that Republicans intended to take on abortion.
“Let’s be clear, there’s more coming,” he said. “I listen to what people say. And I heard people in leadership saying at the beginning of this session, ‘We are going to move incrementally on fully banning abortion.’ And that’s where we’re headed.”
Meeting with reporters after the vote, House Speaker Tim Moore did not elaborate on further plans.
“The position that we’ve taken is that this bill addresses the issue for this legislative biennium,” Moore said. “Now what may happen in a future legislative session, I can’t speak to that.”
NC Health News editor Rose Hoban contributed reporting to this story.