By Rachel Crumpler and Rose Hoban
Obtaining an abortion in North Carolina will now be more challenging after Republican state lawmakers overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 20, a bill that adds new restrictions on women seeking the procedure, limiting access after 12 weeks and imposing new requirements.
In a night filled with drama at the General Assembly, both chambers of the legislative body accomplished the override, voting along party lines. After the vote in each chamber, observers in the galleries above lawmakers erupted in screams and cries of “shame, shame,” as they were herded out of the chambers.
Senate Bill 20 adds an additional in-person appointment at least 72 hours before a procedure, requires that abortions be performed at hospitals after 12 weeks and implements new reporting requirements.
While the outcome was not a surprise, there was no shortage of drama as constituents and fellow lawmakers rallied support for their side and hectored lawmakers perceived to be on the fence with visits, calls and emails. The drama was enhanced by the defection of Charlotte Democratic Rep. Tricia Cotham, who made a switch to the Republican Party in April, sealing a Republican supermajority in the House of Representatives. A supermajority had already existed in the Senate after last November’s election.
At the legislative building in downtown Raleigh on Tuesday afternoon, supporters and opponents of the new restrictions filled the upstairs galleries of the legislative chambers and the space outside, under the rotunda. Many brought both hand-lettered and printed signs reading, “Vote Pro-Life” and “Bans off our bodies.” While members of the two groups mingled mostly peacefully, at times some jostled and tempers flared.
The override means that North Carolina will join the ranks of Republican-controlled states that have moved to impose new restrictions on abortion after the Dobbs decision last summer overturned the longstanding Roe v. Wade decision that had opened up access to abortion. The new restrictions also mean that North Carolina — which had become an abortion refuge for many women in the South — will become less of an access point for people seeking abortions.
Tense debate in the Senate
Both protestors and supporters of the override began arriving at the legislative building in the early afternoon and by the time the Senate convened at 4 p.m.,the galleries above that chamber were filled. An overflow crowd stood outside the gallery windows holding up their signs during the debate.
“Nothing else you could do will erase the harm that this bill will do to women and girls — our health, our status in society, our ability to plan our families and our careers,” Sen. Natasha Marcus said during her turn during the debate. “It undermines our ability to trust that you care about what happens to us.”
Marcus described growing up in a political family in which her father was an elected Republican who believed in personal freedom and refused to vote to restrict abortion access. By passing SB20, she argued Republicans in North Carolina no longer stand for the principles of personal freedom.
At times the Senate debate became testy, as Democrats asked leading questions of the majority Republicans, trying to pin them down on details of the bill that some say are ambiguous.
“People in this chamber are saying that I am somehow doing something inconsistent with what I said during the election cycle,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Wilmington), who was peppered with questions from Democrats after other Republicans refused to yield to questions. “The politics of this, saying that people made promises, I wrote an op-ed and said exactly what I was going to do. I didn’t promise anything to the people in this room.”
“This isn’t political theater here today. It may be to you. It’s not to me,” he said.
In the end, the Senate voted 30-20 along party lines. After the vote tally, several Democratic senators promptly held up matching signs reading, “Politicians make crappy doctors.”
“I think we’ve ended up in a place that is supported by the vast majority of folks,” Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) told reporters after the vote. “I think what we’ve done is put North Carolina at a place that shows respect for life, shows respect for women and shows the interest of this General Assembly in trying to assist in those ways that we can assist if someone has a pregnancy that they carry to term and worries about some of the things about how to take care of a child.”
House vote seals override
Then it was the House’s turn to vote. After a dinner recess where observers stayed seated in the gallery to keep their places, House representatives returned to the chamber to debate.
All eyes were on Cotham, who wore a bright pink dress, a color that’s been associated with supporters of Planned Parenthood. For the entirety of the proceeding, she sat silently.
That was different from a now-notable 2015 incident, when Cotham spoke during a debate on the House floor about receiving care to terminate an ectopic pregnancy, making her a champion of abortion rights supporters at the time.
This year, that mantle passed to Rep. Diamond Staton-Williams (D-Harrisburg), who gave a heartfelt testimonial of choosing to terminate a 2002 pregnancy after much consideration with her husband when she was a young wife and mother of two.
“It was not an easy decision at all,” she said. “It was not made lightly or frivolously … I knew that in order for my family to prosper and to continue with the opportunities that we had in front of us, this was the best decision for us.”
Staton-Williams also shared that she had two additional unviable pregnancies that required medical intervention.
“When I read this language of Senate Bill 20, all I see is the removal of the God-given right, for myself and folks like me, to make decisions for ourselves,” she said.
Shortly after Staton-Williams spoke, debate concluded with Rep. Kristin Baker (R-Concord) having the last word for Republicans. Baker, a physician, argued that the bill “protects the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship.”
That statement drew a howl of protest from the galleries, where observers — including physicians who were there in protest — had been largely silent, waving their hands in the air to applaud statements they supported and giving the thumbs down when they disagreed.
The observers were admonished by House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain), who told members of the audience to stay silent or leave.
Only minutes later, the House vote to override the veto came. Cotham voted with her new caucus for a final vote tally of 72-48 along party lines.
Once again, observers in the gallery erupted into shouts of “Shame!” This time loud and continuing. Moore ordered the General Assembly police and sergeants-at-arms to escort protesters out of the building.
There were no arrests.
Second successful veto override
Cooper rejected the bill with his veto stamp only three days ago during a rally across from the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh that drew a crowd of close to 2,000 people.
This marks the second successful veto override this year. In March, Republican lawmakers voted to override Cooper’s veto of a controversial bill repealing the permit requirement for handgun buyers.
Cooper had urged people to contact four Republican lawmakers — Lee, Rep. John Bradford (R-Cornelius), Rep. Ted Davis Jr. (R-Wilmington) and Cotham — all of whom said on the campaign trail that they’d support fewer restrictions on abortion than the bill dictates.
Ultimately, that advocacy — walking the halls of the legislature, emails, phone calls — proved unsuccessful. The abortion provisions of the bill will go into effect July 1.
In a statement released after the House vote, Cooper said that Republicans had argued that the bill is less restrictive than Democrats have warned.
“We will now do everything in our power to make sure that’s true,” he wrote. “North Carolinians now understand that Republicans are unified in their assault on women’s reproductive freedom and we are energized to fight back on this and other critical issues facing our state.”
Read more coverage of senate bill 20
Abortion rights supporters say the override deals a devastating blow to abortion access in the state.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Susanna Birdsong, general counsel at Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, who choked up as she spoke. “It’s gonna make so many people in our state less safe.”
Cora Field and Loretta Pfeiffer came to Raleigh from Chapel Hill and said they cried when they found out the lawmakers overrode Cooper’s veto. At age 16, they said it’s disappointing to see abortion access diminish. They don’t know how the changes could affect them if they one day ever need an abortion.
“I’m witnessing a really sad day in history,” Pfeiffer said. “I feel like my rights are being taken away and I can’t do anything about it.”
The General Assembly’s actions ignore overwhelming opposition to the bill from the medical community, including the North Carolina Medical Society, the North Carolina Obstetrical and Gynecological Society, the North Carolina Academy of Family Physicians and the NC affiliate of the American College of Nurse-Midwives.
In contrast, pro-life supporters celebrated the passage of the new restrictions.
“Thousands of babies will have their lives,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of NC Values Coalition. “Their lives will be saved and women will be supported when they encounter an unplanned pregnancy with all the funding in the bill — to help them with childcare, with paternal and maternal leave for state employees.”
Twenty-year-old Abigail Griffin drove two hours with her family to be at the legislature to witness the override and show her support for cutting the window for abortion access.
“I believe that every life is a gift from God and that life begins at conception, so anything we can do to protect that sanctity of life is perfect,” she said.
What’s in the bill?
Key Republican lawmakers, who developed the bill behind closed doors, unveiled their “compromise” bill on May 2 in an evening news conference.
The bill narrows the window for abortion from 20 weeks to 12 weeks with certain exceptions allowing the procedure later in pregnancy. In cases of rape or incest, abortion is allowed up to 20 weeks, and bill sponsors assert that no reporting requirements to law enforcement are mandated. In cases of life-threatening anomalies for the fetus or the life of the mother, the procedure is allowed up to 24 weeks.
The bill also adds the following new rules that will affect how women seek abortions and how clinics can provide that care:
- A person seeking abortion must meet at least twice with a physician — first for an office visit for a sonogram and the start of the required 72-hour waiting period, then for the procedure. Physicians are to let the patient know that they’ll be scheduling a follow-up visit within the coming two weeks, which could mean a third visit.
- Medication abortions are blocked after 10 weeks. Republicans have countered this, saying: “The U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved the drugs used for medical abortions if the gestational age is no more than 10 weeks. Senate Bill 20 requires doctors to verify the gestational age of a baby for medical abortions, but it does not prohibit physicians from prescribing abortion-inducing drugs off-label, as long as it is during the first 12 weeks of a woman’s pregnancy.”
- Abortions after 12 weeks must be performed in hospitals.
- New reporting requirements.
- The North Carolina Medical Care Commission has the authority to rewrite regulations on abortion clinics by Oct. 1, opening the door for potential new requirements.
Lawmakers also added funding for initiatives including child care, paid parental leave for state employees and contraception.
Vowing to continue care
While abortion providers did not want new restrictions to come to fruition, they said they’ve been preparing for the possibility since Roe was overturned last summer.
Planned Parenthood South Atlantic spokesperson Molly Rivera said her organization’s preparation has included hiring specialized staff who are trained to help patients navigate hurdles within their home state or those of traveling to another state. With new abortion restrictions coming in July, there will be much to adjust to in North Carolina.
“We will have work to do to prepare our North Carolina clinics for this new reality,” Rivera said. “Figuring out how we can keep our doors open, figuring out how we can help as many patients as we can within the state and then how we can connect patients to the care they need out of state.”
Amber Gavin, vice president of advocacy and operations at A Woman’s Choice, an abortion provider with three clinic locations in the state, predicted that North Carolina will see fewer people coming from out of state.
Gavin emphasized that it’s difficult to provide abortion in an ever-changing landscape of state laws and court rulings, including recent challenges to the abortion drug mifepristone.
“We absolutely intend to continue to provide care,” Gavin said. “Obviously, working with our attorneys and our colleagues to make sure that we are in compliance with the law but still providing really compassionate and patient-centered care.”
Tell us your story about abortion access
NC Health News will be continuing to cover the effects of increased abortion restrictions in the months ahead and the best way for us to do that is with your help — hearing concrete examples of how you are navigating the new law. Have you been affected by new abortion restrictions as a medical professional or a patient? NC Health News is interested in hearing your experience.