Politics & Government

NC House fails to block Cooper’s veto on ‘born alive’ abortion bill

A controversial abortion-related bill prompted North Carolina lawmakers to vote to uphold a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper for the first time during his tenure.

The NC House on Wednesday failed to block Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 359, which would bring new penalties for medical professionals who allow abortion survivors to die. Lawmakers debated for more than an hour before voting 67 in support and 53 against, falling short of securing the supermajority needed to override the veto.

Abortion opponents and women’s rights advocates watched from the gallery as House Speaker Tim Moore and other Republicans debated the bill, also known as the “Born Alive Abortion Survivors Act.” It would require medical professionals to provide life-saving care specifically to infants who survive an abortion and to report instances of such births. Medical professionals and hospital employees who don’t comply with the law could face felony charges, prison time and up to $250,000 in fines.

Democrats generally opposed the bill on grounds that it would bring more bureaucracy into complicated medical situations and may discourage abortions that are medically necessary. Republicans, meanwhile, believe more should be done to prevent infant deaths and hold doctors accountable.

The GOP-controlled NC House and Senate approved the bill before Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed it. But the Senate voted last month to override him, and the House could’ve enacted the bill Wednesday if 60 percent of its members supported an override.

The legislature had canceled most of Cooper’s vetoes in his first two years, although it allowed a few to stand without votes. But Cooper benefited from gains made by Democrats in the 2018 election, when the party broke the Republican supermajority in the legislature. All but two Democrats — Charles Graham of Robeson County and Rep. Garland Pierce of Scotland County — voted to support Cooper.

Among Cooper’s Democratic supporters was Rep. Julie von Haefen of Apex, a freshman Democrat who defeated a long-serving Republican last fall.

“I think it’s an unnecessary bill designed to threaten and scare doctors,” von Haefen said in an interview before Wednesday’s vote. “It’s also political, to make us out as against babies and mothers, which is not the case.”

A full gallery

The North Carolina bill is one of several pieces of abortion-related legislation being considered across the country. Unlike proposals in other states such as Alabama and Louisiana, though, North Carolina’s proposed law doesn’t tighten the window for legal abortion.

Still, advocates from both sides of the issue lined-up outside the House chamber about 30 minutes before lawmakers convened.

One of them was Jill Coward, state director for the Concerned Women for America from Union County. Coward and other bill supporters wore blue shirts and stickers to the legislature. After the vote, she predicted Cooper will face political attacks on the 2020 campaign trail.

“Gov. Cooper has to look out next year because this is what Lt. Gov. Dan Forest will run on — that Gov. Cooper is in favor of infanticide, along with many of the Democrats down there,” Coward said. Forest is considered the Republican frontrunner to challenge Cooper next year.

Kelsea McLain, community outreach director for the Women’s Choice abortion care provider in the Raleigh area, sat on the other side of the gallery. McLain said she’s worried that the bill will change the climate for abortion providers.

“This is just a part of a trend nationwide of attacks on abortion access,” McLain said. “While some of them definitely have the goal in criminalizing care, it again is rooted on the idea that abortion is inherently bad and the providers of that care are bad people when it’s really not the reality that we’re up against.”

Emotional debate

Wednesday’s debate featured rhetoric, hyperbole and emotional pleas.

Rep. Keith Kidwell, a Republican from Chocowinity who wanted to override the governor’s veto, said it wasn’t a religious, political or societal issue.

He said the issue is “whether the great state of North Carolina will sanction the murder of a baby. Do you want to wear that banner today?” Kidwell said to fellow lawmakers.

Rep. Allison Dahle, another freshman Democrat from Wake County, said in an interview Wednesday morning that existing laws already protect those infants. Dahle said the issue is hard to talk about and shouldn’t be politicized.

“On (the) whole, I believe both sides of the chamber want to work together. This is a divisive issue we’re not going to agree on,” Dahle said.

At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Republicans Moore, Sen. Joyce Krawiec and Rep. Pat McElraft argued that the bill is “not about abortion.”

“This is about taking care of infants who have survived abortion,” Krawiec said.

McElraft and Moore repeated similar comments on the Senate floor during debate.

“This is about the baby. God help us if we don’t override this veto,” McElraft said.

‘Real circumstances’

Two anti-abortion advocates who spoke at the press conference, Gianna Jessen and Claire Culwell, said they survived abortions.

Claire Culwell, 31, was born at 40 weeks, but her twin was aborted when their 13-year-old birth mother was 20 weeks pregnant with them, she said.

“We as survivors are often left out. Our stories were not imaginary. These were real circumstances we were born under,” Culwell said.

Culwell told The News & Observer in an interview after the event that Moore had asked her to come speak, and that she has been following state legislative action around “born alive” bills. She said the bill would hold doctors accountable through its penalties and reporting requirements.

Culwell said that she found out about the circumstances of her birth when she met her birth mother 10 years ago. Culwell is the mother of a 6-year-old girl.

“My daughter would not be here if that abortion was successful,” Culwell said.

Reconsideration unlikely

State laws allow for the House to wait until the end of next year’s legislative session to vote on an override. Legislative leaders have done this in the past while waiting for minds to change or for override opponents to be absent — or both. This stalling tactic is known as putting a bill in the “veto garage.”

And before Wednesday’s vote, some Democrats speculated that Republicans could take advantage of a rule that allows for a member of the vote’s winning side to make a motion for reconsideration at a later date. That scenario is now unlikely.

No Republicans crossed the aisle to vote with Democrats and Cooper.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.
Paul “Andy” Specht reports on North Carolina leaders and state politics for The News & Observer and PolitiFact. Specht previously covered Raleigh City Hall and town governments around the Triangle. He’s a Raleigh native who graduated from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. Contact him at aspecht@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4870.
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