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Abortion bill headed to governor after party-line Senate vote

Sen. Val Applewhite, D-Cumberland, speaks out against proposed new abortion restrictions during the N.C. Senate's debate on Thursday.
Colin Campbell
Sen. Val Applewhite, D-Cumberland, speaks out against proposed new abortion restrictions during the N.C. Senate's debate on Thursday.

The N.C. Senate voted 29-20 Thursday to approve a ban on most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy, following a similar vote in the House late Wednesday night.

The vote sends Senate Bill 20 to Gov. Roy Cooper, who has already vowed to veto the measure. That will send the proposal back to the legislature in the coming weeks, and Republicans appear to have the votes they’ll need to override the veto. All Republicans in both chambers, including party-switching former Democratic Rep. Tricia Cotham, voted in favor of the bill.

No Democrats voted for the bill, but Cotham’s party switch means that Republicans have the necessary three-fifths majority for an override in both chambers.

Under the bill, all abortions would be legal through 12 weeks of pregnancy — down from 20 weeks under current state law.

Victims of rape or incest would be able to get an abortion through 20 weeks of pregnancy, and abortions would be legal through 24 weeks when doctors diagnose a “life-limiting anomaly,” a disorder that would limit the lifespan of the child. Abortions would be available at any point for women with a medical emergency.

The WUNC Politics Podcast is a free-flowing discussion of what we're hearing in the back hallways of the General Assembly and on the campaign trail across North Carolina.

“Abortion in the third trimester is not just between a woman and her doctor,” said Sen. Amy Galey, R-Alamance. “There is a baby involved. It is an infant. Yes, it is the role of the law to protect people, and an unborn baby at some point becomes a person.”

While abortions before 12 weeks would remain legal, patients would face additional hurdles. It requires in-person doctor visits for patients seeking medication abortions and mandates that a doctor must be present when abortion medication is administered. It adds new informed consent requirements, and it increases licensing requirements and regulatory fees for abortion providers.

Democrats say the regulations in the bill would put abortions off-limits for some women. They attempted a filibuster of sorts during Thursday's Senate debate, raising procedural points and using each of their 10-minute speaking allotments to drag the session out for hours.

“These extreme restrictions effectively ban abortion for the majority of women in North Carolina, who don't have access to an OB-GYN in their county or a hospital,” said Sen. Sydney Batch, D-Wake. “Senate Bill 20 would have far-reaching consequences beyond women's reproductive rights. We’re setting a dangerous precedent for government intervention in our personal lives and our health care decisions.”

In addition to the abortion restrictions, the bill also includes a number of family-related provisions. They include paid parental leave for teachers and state employees and $32 million to continue funding for childcare facilities at current levels.

The bill would also create a new misdemeanor charge for assaulting a pregnant woman. And it would increase the reimbursement rates for foster parents.

“I hope my colleagues across the aisle can look past the extremes to see the good this does for women, children, and families,” said Sen. Vickie Sawyer, R-Alamance.

The N.C. Medical Society, which represents doctors, issued a statement opposing the bill. The group says it "interferes in the doctor patient relationship" and "is administratively burdensome and proposes a complex set of regulations that are not evidence-based and will impede patient access to medical care."

Thursday's final vote came less than 48 hours after the legislation was introduced. Sponsors say it's the result of months of closed-door meetings between a "working group" of Republican lawmakers, but Democrats questioned the fast-tracked process used since the bill was introduced late Tuesday.

"Are you worried some of your members might change their votes if the public gets to them and they listen to constituents?" asked Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg. "Why can't this bill, if you think it's so great, stand up to the normal course of debate and committees with public comment?"

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