RALEIGH A strategy that has been used to close abortion clinics in other states by imposing new regulations on them was approved in a contentious bill in the state House on Wednesday.
The bill – which would require stricter standards, more contact between abortion clinic doctors and their clients, and limit insurance coverage for the procedure – passed along party lines by a vote of 74 to 41. Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville was the only Republican to vote against the measure. Jeter had said earlier he was elected to work on jobs, not social issues.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican from Mecklenburg County who is a candidate for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, wasn’t required to vote, but did, siding with the majority.
The legislation – Senate Bill 353, innocuously titled Health and Safety Law Changes – now goes to the Senate, which passed a similar version last week. The legislation has been on a fast track since then, with Republicans in both chambers slipping their versions into two different unrelated bills to ensure the legislation advances before the session ends. Democrats and abortion-rights organizations have criticized the process as rushed and secretive.
Republican sponsors of the bill presented it as a health and safety issue for women, while Democrats and abortion-rights groups mocked that as disingenuous cover for their real goal of regulating abortion clinics out of existence.
The distinction between overly burdensome restrictions and needed safeguards goes to the heart of the legal battle where the bill is likely headed if it becomes law.
It is also central to the line that Gov. Pat McCrory has drawn: He said during his campaign last year he wouldn’t support any new restrictions on abortions; but earlier this week he said safeguards were different.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1992, in upholding the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortions, also ruled that states can regulate abortions to protect the health of the mother. But, the court said, states can’t place an undue burden on women seeking abortions.
Rep. Rick Glazier, a Democrat and lawyer from Fayetteville, on Thursday said regulations that pose a substantial obstacle to abortions constitute an undue burden. Glazier said if the bill becomes law it will be challenged in court immediately.
Glazier said such a law would be especially vulnerable because the General Assembly hasn’t made any kind of findings or established a record justifying those restrictions.
“The arrogance of the House to simply impose its ideological will today is breathtaking,” Glazier said on the floor.
Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, a Charlotte Republican and also an attorney, said the right to an abortion “doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The state has an important interest in promoting the health and safety of women who receive an abortion. Reasonable regulations may be placed.”
The vote came at the end of a scheduled three-hour discussion on the House floor, with emotions occasionally running high.
Rep. Alma Adams, a Democrat from Greensboro, said if the bill forces clinics to close it will force pregnant women back into the era of unsafe so-called coat-hanger abortions.
“What a terrible day for North Carolina women – shame on us,” Adams said, wielding a coat hanger. “Do we really want that blood on our hands? I do not.”
But Republicans stood their ground in insisting their concern was making clinics safer. They point to the record of regulatory violations accumulated over the past 10 years; some clinics having repeated violations.
“There’s a blatant disregard for standards,” Schaffer said.
Rep. Ruth Samuelson, another Charlotte Republican who has taken a lead role in abortion legislation, said there have been deaths in clinics in other states.
“People are dying in abortion clinics,” Samuelson said. “We are not going to wait until women die in an abortion clinic before we raise the standards.”
Thursday’s floor debate drew a full gallery – with the bill’s opponents in pink T-shirts and supporters in blue. At the conclusion of the vote, Tillis thanked the spectators for remaining quiet during the emotional discussion – an overture interrupted when one young woman began yelling, and Tillis ordered that side of the gallery cleared.
NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina and the American Civil Liberties Union all issued statements lambasting the House. Planned Parenthood, in particular, had been braced for a bill like this since before the session began, aware that regulatory bills targeting abortion clinics have appeared in other states.
Representatives of anti-abortion groups praised the House for the outcome.
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