RALEIGH — Waiting until the last full day of the session, the state Senate on Thursday approved the abortion bill that it had been holding for nearly two weeks.
The Senate voted 32-13 to approve a House-written version of the sweeping bill. It would impose stricter regulations on abortion clinics, require more contact between abortion clinic doctors and patients, and limit insurance coverage for the procedure.
Senate Bill 353 was a House rewrite that took into account concerns raised by the state Department of Health and Human Services.
The bill now goes to Gov. Pat McCrory, who has said he would sign the House version but not the Senates, over concerns that the Senates bill imposed undue obstacles to abortions rather than acceptable health safeguards.
Immediately after the vote, the N.C. Values Coalition issued a statement praising the Senates action. Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina and the American Civil Liberties Union called on McCrory to veto the bill.
While campaigning for governor last fall, McCrory said he would not support any new restrictions on abortions. He recently said the House bill satisfies the safety concerns of the medical professionals in his administration while not further restricting access.
The bills opponents say if McCrory signs the bill, he will be going against his campaign promise, because such a law would restrict access in several ways. It would eliminate insurance coverage for abortions for city and county employees, and from the states federal health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act.
It would also require state health officials to come up with rules which would be approved by a commission of political appointees to regulate abortion clinics more strictly than they are now. Clinics would be required to meet standards applicable to those of outpatient surgery centers.
Only one of the states 16 abortion clinics currently meets such standards, and officials have said it is possible some would close if they had to upgrade to that extent. That has happened in a few other states when similar laws were passed. But it is too early to know what will happen, since the rules havent been written yet.
On Thursday a day that was expected to last past midnight as the session neared an end the Senate spent about an hour debating the abortion bill.
Republican backers of the bill said their concern is for womens health and safety. Opponents were not persuaded. They noted the procedure is already extraordinarily safe and that the bill is opposed by state and national medical groups. They contend the states clinics are already operating under adequate regulations, pointing to the recent closures of three clinics as proof.
Supporters say the opposite: That the three clinics prove there is a problem, which is especially worrisome in light of the well-publicized murder conviction of an abortion doctor earlier this year in an unsafe clinic in Pennsylvania.
What is wrong with reasonable standards? asked Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Republican from Wilmington. In light of the multiple abortion clinics closed in our state and in Philadelphia whats the matter with a little bit of reason?
Goolsby and other Republican senators rejected opponents claim that the bill would harm, not help, women.
I care about women, Goolsby said. I think my record very much shows that. If you can show me something (in the bill) that will hurt women I will not vote for this.
Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat from Rocky Mount, said opponents want Republican lawmakers and the governor to understand they believe their concern is politics not health.
It is important to us that you know we are not buying this disguise, Bryant said. Your agenda is clear there is nothing in this bill that helps protect the rights of womens health care.
Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, also had a message for McCrory.
I hope the governor has a dictionary at the Capitol and hell use it, Woodward said, to define the term restrictions. While the governor reads his dictionary I also hope hell read the word commitment, because thats what he made to the women of North Carolina last fall.
Earlier in the day, abortion-rights groups presented petitions they said contained more than 35,000 signatures of North Carolinians from across the state who oppose the bill. And a group of dozens of city and county officials from metropolitan counties presented a letter to the governor opposing the legislation.
After the vote, Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, issued a statement praising the Senate for passing the abortion bill as well as an earlier bill by Goolsby protecting victims of sex trafficking.
It is refreshing to work with a state legislative body that values life and wants to protect women and the unborn, Fitzgerald said. We appreciate the legislatures work in passing these important life-preserving measures and urge the governor to sign both bills into law as soon as possible.