State Politics

Hearing allows public to weigh in on revised NC abortion rules

A long-awaited rewrite of North Carolina’s abortion clinic regulations was praised and criticized by activists on both sides of the controversy at a public hearing on Friday, setting the stage for a likely repeat of the debate in the state legislature next year.

About 80 people attended the hourlong hearing on the Dorothea Dix Hospital grounds where the state Department of Health and Human Services, which prepared the proposed rules, is headquartered.

Nearly all of those were abortion-rights advocates from a handful of groups that organized the turnout, including Planned Parenthood and NARAL-Pro Choice affiliates. Those groups had opposed revising the regulations because they feared the real intent was to impose standards that were unjustified and impossible to meet.

But they were largely satisfied with the proposal written by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration, while the conservative forces that pushed for stronger regulations – the N.C. Values Coalition and the N.C. Family Policy Council – were disappointed.

A 2013 law required the update, which DHHS undertook this year with the help of a group of stakeholders, including doctors, professional licensing agencies and an abortion provider. The state is accepting public input this month, and then will send the proposed revisions to the state Rules Review Commission.

Ultimately, the General Assembly will take final action, probably next year. The 2013 legislation was bitterly fought along partisan lines. McCrory signed the bill saying it did not further restrict access to abortions, which was a campaign promise he made. The law did limit some insurance coverage for abortions.

On Friday, five physicians said the proposed regulations would improve safeguards for patients’ health and safety without creating politically motivated barriers that would force some clinics out of business. Several speakers pointed out that abortions already have a low rate of complications.

Deborah Walsh, the owner and director of a Charlotte abortion clinic who was part of the group that came up with the proposed rules, praised the process although she said she didn’t think all of the regulations are necessary.

“My clinic is strictly regulated, and it always has been,” she said. “North Carolina has some of the strictest regulations in the whole country.”

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, said the process was biased because the group that came up with the proposal only included one person with an anti-abortion viewpoint, and was weighted toward the “abortion industry.” She noted that the state has cited Walsh’s clinic for being out of compliance, yet Walsh was chosen to help rewrite the rules.

Fitzgerald said the resulting proposal is inadequate to protect women, and that the clinics should be brought up to the same standards as same-day surgery centers. The 2013 law required clinics meet that standard when “applicable.”

“The timing of the rules coming out in this hearing the Friday before Christmas is obviously a ploy to deceive the public and to kind of push these under the rug,” Fitzgerald said.

There are 14 clinics certified to provide abortions in North Carolina and two others seeking certification.