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 bill’s 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 isn’t 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 don’t 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. “It’s 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.
“We’re not here today taking away the rights of women,” he said. “We’re 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 can’t 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 state’s 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.
“It’s 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.
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 mother’s 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.
“It’s 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
N&O Staff writer Craig Jarvis contributed.
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