NC's proposed abortion bill slows down a notch

cjarvis@newsobserver.com afrank@newsobserver.comJuly 9, 2013 

— The momentum behind the contentious abortion bill the Senate rapidly approved last week slowed in the House on Tuesday, where the state’s public health regulators told lawmakers they have serious questions about the proposed law.

As a result, House and Senate authors of the legislation agreed to try to work out concerns with the state Department of Health and Human Services. Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Republican from Charlotte, said she hoped the questions could be resolved this week and a bill sent to the governor before the legislature leaves this summer.

McCrory told reporters Monday that, while he made a campaign promise not to support new restrictions on abortions, there was “a fine line between safety measures and restrictions.” The specifics of the governor’s concerns over House Bill 695, the “Family, Faith and Freedom Protection Act,” became clearer when the head of DHHS and top aides showed up at the House Health and Human Services Committee Tuesday morning.

Dr. Aldona Wos, the DHHS secretary, said that no one had asked her department’s opinion on the legislation and that the agency has concerns about the provision requiring it to rewrite regulations for abortion clinics, including imposing a higher level of regulation similar to what covers ambulatory surgical centers. Only one abortion clinic in the state meets the more stringent regulations, and the 16 others could be forced to close, according to the agency.

Wos said the department and the governor agree with some aspects of the bill – such as allowing health care providers who oppose abortion on moral grounds not to participate, and providing health information for expectant mothers.

“But there are other parts of the bill that are far more complex and require further discussion and clarity prior to passage to ensure they are medically sound, safe and legal,” Wos said.

Wos said what would help ensure public safety is providing the department with enough resources to make regular inspections. She said there are 10 full-time staff members whose job it is to survey hundreds of medical facilities across the state, including abortion clinics. As a result, she said, DHHS is able to inspect abortion clinics only every three to five years.

‘There’s work to do’

Reacting to criticism over the rushed handling of the bill in the Senate last week, House Speaker Thom Tillis wanted to give the controversy a further public airing and so had it sent to the committee that met Tuesday, his spokesman said. House leaders said Tuesday evening that they didn’t know when the bill would be scheduled to come before the full House.

With concerns from McCrory’s administration hanging over the bill, reaction from the Republican majority that controls the House was mixed.

Freshman Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville told The Charlotte Observer he wasn’t inclined to go along with the current version of the bill. Jeter said he thinks that if the same standards that apply to ambulatory surgery centers are going to apply to abortion clinics, they should also apply to every place surgery is performed, including dental offices.

“I didn’t come up here to vote on social issues,” Jeter said. “I came up here to get jobs back.”

Earlier this year, Jeter voted against the bill requiring students be taught that abortion is a risk factor for premature births. He supported Samuelson’s bill banning abortions based on the gender of the fetus, which has been incorporated into this bill.

Rep. Tom Murry of Morrisville said the bill’s prospects were unclear.

“It seems like there’s work to do,” said Murry, a Republican. “There’s room for discussion about the rules. The concern is to get a consensus on what that fix is.”

Rep. John Blust, a Republican from Greensboro, said he thought Tuesday’s committee meeting proved the case for the bill’s passage.

“The committee hearing was fairly decisive in favor of the bill,” Blust said.

At the meeting, Sen. Warren Daniel, a Republican from Morganton, told the committee that the current regulations on abortion clinics were adopted 40 years ago, with updates in the 1980s and 1990s. He said the bill’s goal was to hold the abortion industry as responsible as any other health care provider, and promote women’s health.

Opponents of the bill say that’s disingenuous, and that the real purpose is to make abortions as difficult to get as possible. They note that other states have used the tactic to regulate abortion clinics out of existence.

Reviewing regulations

Wos told the committee that the department has discovered that safety regulations hadn’t been updated since 1995, and apparently no study has been done on how to improve safety in North Carolina’s abortion clinics. While asking the legislature to slow down and work through the issues, Wos said that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

“To those who disagree with any new rules and regulations, this is unrealistic,” Wos said. “As medical science advances, we constantly have new information; we must review our rules and regulations and become current.”

Drexdal Pratt, director of health service regulations at DHHS, told the committee the agency’s main concerns are clarifying the implications of having a physician present during the administration of abortion-inducing drugs, which typically takes place over several days with several doses. Also, he said, it’s not clear how well abortion clinics and ambulatory surgical centers’ standards might be coordinated.

Last week’s Senate vote drew more than 500 protesters. Before the committee met Tuesday, dozens of abortion-rights activists gathered outside the Legislative Office Building on Halifax Mall to hear speeches from event organizers and lawmakers. The event was organized by a coalition of groups, including NARAL Pro-Choice N.C. and Planned Parenthood.

“I think we just want our representatives to know, even if we didn’t necessarily vote for them, that this is something that’s important to us,” Casey Corder of Raleigh said. “Even if abortion is something that they disagree with, … you can’t dictate policy based on your own religion.”

Involving the providers

Jeannette Wilson and her children came from Charlotte armed with graphic anti-abortion signs.

“We know that sometimes the signs, though they’re hard to look at, change minds and hearts,” said Wilson, who demonstrates with her children weekly at A Preferred Women’s Health Center in Charlotte.

Later, in a news conference organized by the House Democratic caucus, speakers emphasized the lack of female health care providers’ involvement in the bill. Paige Johnson, Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina’s vice president of external affairs, said she would be willing to work with lawmakers to improve the bill.

“If their goal … is not to shut down providers of safe and legal abortion but rather to make the procedures safer for women, then why not involve the providers of this health care?” she said.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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