RALEIGH — Sweeping new rules that could limit abortions in the state passed the state Senate along party lines Wednesday after a fiery debate that roused spectators and led the lieutenant governor to order onlookers removed from the gallery.
The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 29-12 after a debate that invoked faith, constitutional rights and health statistics.
The bills supporters say the proposal will increase safety, but opponents said the real intent is to restrict abortions. The bill now goes to the House for consideration. That chamber has already approved some of the provisions in the bill. It isnt clear whether the House will approve the new restrictions, but Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican, indicated some support Wednesday.
The prolife provisions of the bill are supported by a large majority of North Carolinians, he said. They dont want their taxes used to pay for abortions for others.
After the Senate vote, people in the hall began chanting, Shame, shame, shame. A woman in the gallery who yelled Shame on you was arrested.
This is an atrocious, shameful bill, said Sen. Earline Parmon, a Winston-Salem Democrat. Its about dictating to women about very personal medical decisions that should be left to a woman and her doctor. This is going to cause more back-alley abortions, whether you want to admit it or not.
Sen. Warren Daniel, a Morganton Republican, said the bill was about keeping women safe.
Were not here today taking away the rights of women, he said. Were taking away the rights of an industry to have substandard conditions.
Many of the women gathered outside said they were outraged by the surprise preliminary Senate vote Tuesday night to add more restrictions on surgical and medical abortions. The provisions, tacked onto an unrelated bill that says foreign laws cant be recognized in family court, requires abortion clinics to meet standards similar to those for outpatient surgery clinics. It also requires doctors to be present when women take pills that induce abortions.
The bill includes a raft of provisions advocated by abortion opponents similar to those being debated and adopted by other states.
This bill is big, said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy analysis group with offices in New York and Washington.
The nonprofit supports abortion rights, but groups on both sides of the abortion debate cite its data.
Critics of the bill say the provision requiring abortion clinics to meet standards similar to those for outpatient surgical centers would effectively close the majority of the states 16 licensed abortion clinics. Legislators and legislative staff know of only one clinic in Asheville that would meet new license requirements.
Under the bill, the Department of Health and Human Services would come up with specific guidelines for North Carolina abortion clinics to meet. The agency could come up with its own rules or copy federal regulations.
Standards typically include specifications for hallway widths, ventilation and parking spaces, and getting abortion clinics up to par could involve renovations or moving to new buildings.
Its quite expensive, and the costs are quite enormous to comply with these things, said Melissa Reed, vice president for public affairs for Planned Parenthood Health Systems. She described the legislation as cost-prohibitive for providers.
Virginia passed a bill in 2011 calling for abortion clinics to follow ambulatory surgical center standards by 2014. Planned Parenthood estimated that it would cost each of its three Virginia abortion clinics hundreds of thousands of dollars to comply, according to rough estimates.
Protections and restrictions
Three provisions in the bill are similar to legislation that has already passed the House:
• A ban on abortions based on the gender of the fetus.
• A prohibition on abortion insurance coverage in any health care plan offered to state residents through the Affordable Care Act, except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother.
• An expansion of protection to health-care workers to refuse to perform abortions on ethical or religious grounds.
Other provisions in the bill would stop local governments from covering abortion in their employee benefit plans. Currently, each city and county can decide what benefits to offer its employees.
If this were to become law, those (city or county) health plans could not have coverage on abortions that was different or greater than what the state health plan provides, said Paul Meyer, director of governmental affairs for the League of Municipalities.
The state plan pays for abortion only in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mothers life.
The league does not have a position on the bill, but the county commissioners association said the legislature should let commissioners make decisions about employee health insurance.
Its really an issue of local autonomy, local decision-making, said Todd McGee, communications director for the N.C. Association of County Commissioners.
The bill also requires doctors to be present when a woman takes pills to induce abortion. Women take two medications a few days apart. Women usually take the second at home and return to the doctor for a follow-up visit.
In 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, 23.4 percent of the 26,192 abortions done in North Carolina were drug-induced, while 75.1 percent were from surgical procedures.
At least nine states have laws requiring doctors be present when women take pills inducing abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
When these bills have been floated around in other states, they have the effect of inhibiting choice and eliminating choice, said Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, an Asheville Democrat.
But Senate leader Phil Berger said critics were mischaracterizing the bill. Were not overturning Roe v. Wade, he said.
Throughout the debate, Republicans hammered that unsafe clinics are operating in the state. Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Republican from Wake Forest, talked in detail about a Charlotte clinic that was shut down twice since 2007 over safety concerns and reopened. The clinic closed briefly this year after investigators found staff were having patients swallow a drug that should have been injected.
Democrats countered that because the clinic was shut down, the states oversight was working.
Since 2008, there have been 23 complaints to the state Department of Health and Human Services against licensed abortion clinics, according to the agency.
Democrats also argued that abortion is safe and that Viagra has resulted in more deaths. Sen. Josh Stein cited research from the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals that Viagra causes five deaths per 100,000 prescriptions, while an abortion-inducing pill causes less than 1 death per 100,000 prescriptions.
Democrats said the bill should require doctors to stay with men who take Viagra. Sen. Ellie Kinnaird filed an amendment that would require that, but Republicans shelved it without a vote.
Many in the crowd watching the debate laughed and applauded the Viagra references, but their signs of support for Democrats arguments drew reprimands from Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. He also chided onlookers who waved their hands in silent support.
Sen. Kathy Harrington, a Republican from Gastonia, chastised Democrats for their Viagra argument.
To liken taking Viagra to giving a woman medication to lose her unborn child is unconscionable, she said. This is a procedure where an unborn child loses its life. It should be taken very seriously.
Christmas in July
On the Christian Action League website, Executive Director Mark Creech called the bill Christmas in July.
In all my days, I have never seen a bill so full of good content, he wrote. I have shared with my friends that the legislation is a veritable Christmas tree of beautiful lights and ornaments representing life, justice, and other righteous principles. The only thing missing is the crowning star of final passage and the Governors signature.
It was unclear Wednesday what Gov. Pat McCrory would do if the bill passes the House and makes it to his desk. During the 2012 campaign, McCrory said he would not sign more abortion restrictions into law. He did not say this week what he thought about the bill, but he did criticize the process.
When the Democrats were in power, this is the way they did business, McCrory said in a statement. It was not right then, and its not right now. Regardless of what party is in charge or what important issue is being discussed, the process must be appropriate and thorough.
Senate Democrats complained that Senate Republicans sprang the bill out of committee without public notice.
Berger shot back at both McCrory and the Democrats, saying some of the provisions in the bill have been in legislation sitting in committees for months, and the proposal was debated over two days.
Gov. McCrory shared some thoughts on the legislative process, Berger said in the statement. Its understandable that he is not familiar with it, so I want to provide some perspective.
Before the vote was taken, senators started a debate on faith and values when Republican Sen. Ralph Hise of Spruce Pine said he couldnt sit silently while others spoke words of death.
I ask each of you to consider what type of society we want and what life we value in the state of North Carolina, he said.
Sen. Angela Bryant, a Rocky Mount Democrat, said she had her own beliefs that shouldnt be subordinated to someone elses.
I have an equal right to that, just as your families have the right to access what you believe in, she said.
Staff writer Craig Jarvis contributed.