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Democrats blast NC abortion laws as GOP debates further restrictions

Dr. Beverly Gray, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Duke Health, speaks at a news conference at the legislature about abortion restrictions.
Colin Campbell
Dr. Beverly Gray, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Duke Health, speaks at a news conference at the legislature about abortion restrictions, Wednesday, March 22, 2023.

Republican state lawmakers say they’re working on legislation that would add new restrictions on abortion in North Carolina. But two months into this year’s session, they haven’t yet filed a single bill.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last year gives North Carolina Republicans the chance to pass tighter abortion restrictions. GOP lawmakers have been discussing the issue behind closed doors for weeks, but they haven’t reached an agreement.

Some conservative Republicans want a total ban on abortion. But legislative leaders like Sen. Phil Berger have said they don’t want to go that far. They’ve suggested tightening the state’s ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, possibly to around 12 weeks.

"I think the fact that you haven’t seen a bill is an indication that we’re still working," Berger said. "My sense is that we are closer to an agreement now than we were earlier, but I think as we get closer it probably might take a little longer to work out whatever the differences might be."

Abortion rights supporters are hoping an impasse could mean that nothing changes. Rep. Julie von Haefen, D-Wake, is among the sponsors of a bill filed Wednesday that would repeal the state’s existing restrictions, including the 20-week ban.

“We want to maintain the status quo," von Haefen said. "That would be amazing, but that’s the floor. We have got to pass bills like this, because even though abortion is still legal, it’s not accessible to many, many people because of all these medically unnecessary barriers they’ve put in place.”

Those regulations include a 72-hour waiting period for people seeking abortions, as well as restrictions on access to abortion medications through telehealth. The bill is titled the "RBG Act," which stands for "Remove Barriers to Gain Access" but is also a reference to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Even with the current rules, North Carolina is seeing an influx of patients from states where abortion is now illegal. Dr. Beverly Gray is an OBGYN who treats those patients.

"I’ve cared for patients who have gotten up here and didn’t have money to pay for gas to get back home, or didn’t have money to feed their kids overnight when they got here," Gray said at a news conference Wednesday.

According to a report from #WeCount, sponsored by the Society of Family Planning which supports abortion rights, North Carolina has the largest percent increase in abortions across states following Roe v. Wade — a 37% jump between April to August 2022.

Some physicians say their work is routinely affected by the 20-week ban. Dr. Nicole Teal specializes in high-risk pregnancies that often have complications after 20 weeks.

"Thinking about facing that for a whole career, and with the impending 15-, 14-, 12-week ban, it’s just so outside of my moral obligation to patients, I felt that I really couldn’t stay here," Teal said about practicing in North Carolina. "So I’m moving back to California and I’ll be taking a job there starting in September."

The bill filed by Democrats on Wednesday to repeal restrictions is unlikely to get a hearing in the Republican-led House and Senate.

Editor's Note: This story has been clarified to describe pregnancy complications that occur after 20 weeks.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.
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