RALEIGH — Unable to flat-out ban abortions, opponents in North Carolina have found new avenues of attack aimed at making it difficult for clinics to stay in business, restricting the use of pregnancy-terminating pills and exposing doctors to an increased threat of lawsuits and heavy fines.
Those are the tactics that have surfaced in the N.C. General Assembly this year, mirroring similar bills and more aggressive efforts in several other states. The legislation is either welcomed as an effective strategy to save lives or loathed as disingenuous and intrusive.
Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, says pro-choice and anti-abortion advocates should share common ground in wanting abortions to be rare and safe, which is what she says the proposed legislation would accomplish.
“Do you want to sacrifice the safety of women just to make abortions more available?” Fitzgerald said. “I think the public comes down on making sure the safety of women is guaranteed.”
Suzanne Buckley, executive director of NARAL Pro Choice North Carolina, says a four-decade campaign to end abortion nationwide has ramped up with these new efforts. She says 42 laws were enacted last year that furthered that goal.
“The bills we’re seeing in North Carolina are part of an extreme anti-woman agenda sweeping the nation,” Buckley said. “Most North Carolinians think decisions about reproductive health-care should be left to the woman, her family, her doctor and her faith.”
A push nationwide
In March, Arkansas banned abortions at 12 weeks of pregnancy, which is when an abdominal ultrasound typically detects a fetal heartbeat. Soon after, North Dakota adopted a law banning most abortions as early as six weeks; intrusive transvaginal ultrasounds can detect a heartbeat at that stage.
A legal challenge has been filed to the Arkansas law. Both bans run contrary to Roe v. Wade and other U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings that allow abortions for up to 24 weeks.
In North Carolina, the most far-reaching of the proposals is Senate Bill 308 by Sen. Warren Daniel, a Republican lawyer from Morganton who is in his second term. Opponents say it’s a prime example of what they call TRAP laws – Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers – which impose licensing, facility inspection and other requirements that are not medically necessary. These bills have surfaced in several states, including Mississippi, Alabama and Wisconsin.
Daniel’s bill would amend last session’s Woman’s Right to Know Act, which imposed new restrictions on abortions . If amended, the act would require a doctor performing an abortion to remain on the premises until the patient recovers and leaves. It would also require the physician to have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles of the place where the procedure is performed.
“It’s a regulatory bill,” Daniel said. “We regulate about any industry in the state you can think of.”
But elsewhere such bills have proven to be a powerful tool for anti-abortion forces.
A similar bill enacted in Mississippi threatens to close the only abortion clinic in that state because hospitals have refused to grant its physicians privileges. On Monday, a federal judge temporarily blocked the law.
Since 86 of the 100 counties in North Carolina have no abortion providers, finding a clinic within 30 miles of a hospital that will grant its doctors admitting privileges could be a struggle for some, especially poor women in rural areas.
One potential impact of the bill that is not readily apparent is that it would seem to put an end to the use of pregnancy-terminating pills. Mifepristone, also known as RU486, is only administered in the first nine weeks of pregnancy. It’s not the same medicine as the so-called morning-after pill, which prevents pregnancy.
Some clinics dispense RU486 while a medical provider appears remotely through a live video feed and instructs the woman on what to do. Women take a series of the pills at home. That wouldn’t be possible under the bill, since neither the patient nor the doctor would remain on the premises.
Daniel said the bill was targeted at what he said was a growing trend toward video conferencing. Paige Johnson of Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina says there is no video conferencing with the pills in North Carolina.
Dr. Erika Levi, an ob-gyn who performs abortions at several sites in Chapel Hill, says it is one of the safest procedures performed in the United States. “There’s no medical reason for such legislation, nor does it make the procedure any safer,” Levi said. “All it does is dictate which medical options are appropriate for women.”
Two other bills in works
Two other bills are also in committees waiting to be taken up.
Rep. Ruth Samuelson’s HB716 would allow doctors to be sued and fined heavily if they perform abortions where gender is a significant factor in the woman’s decision. Doctors could be sued not only by the woman who was pregnant, but also by her spouse, parents, siblings, guardians or her own regular doctor.
It isn’t certain that there actually is a significant issue in this country with women having abortions because they didn’t want a particular sex. Ninety percent of abortions are done in the first term when gender isn’t known, Johnson said.
Fitzgerald says recent studies have confirmed it exists. Real or not, 58 House Republicans have jumped on the bill as co-sponsors.
A third bill, House Bill 730, would expand protection to other health-care workers to refuse to perform abortions. It would also allow employers to decline to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives if they have a religious or moral objection. It is a direct challenge to the federal Affordable Care Act, which mandates all but religious employers provide that coverage.
Daniel says there isn’t a coordinated effort among abortion opponents across the country to regulate abortion out of business, although he says legislators and advocates do share ideas. While not acknowledging his bills are part of the TRAP campaign, Daniel makes it clear what his motivation is. “I believe an unborn child has constitutional rights that supersede the rights of the mother, to a point,” Daniel said.
Last session’s Woman’s Right to Know Act required a 24-hour waiting period and a narrated ultrasound at least four hours in advance. A federal judge has put the ultrasound requirement on hold, pending the outcome of a lawsuit.
Republicans in both chambers barely mustered enough votes to override Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto of that bill, but this session there are more GOP legislators. Whether they can count on the new Republican governor will be a major question.
While campaigning for governor last year, McCrory said during a televised debate that he would not support any new restrictions on women’s access to abortion.
So far, the bills have not been taken up in any committees.