UPDATE: Gov. Pat McCrory released a statement Friday afternoon confirming he would sign Senate Bill 353 into law if it is approved by the N.C. Senate next week.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated Senate Bill 353 would face a third reading in the House Friday. The bill passed its third reading Thursday. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.
First it was Sharia law, now it’s motorcycle safety — two unexpected paths for state legislators to enact a flurry of new abortion clinic regulations before the N.C. General Assembly’s session comes to a close.
Now, after nine days of rapid-fire debates, meetings and rallies on controversial abortion bills, the action appears to be taking a weekend break.
The N.C. House of Representatives voted Thursday 74-41 to approve Senate Bill 353, which originally addressed motorcycle safety but was amended Wednesday to include extensive abortion language.
The bill faces final approval in the Senate next week before heading to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk. McCrory spokesmen said Thursday the governor would not release a statement on the bill immediately after the House vote.
How the abortion provisions have changed
The most recent legislation would give N.C.’s Department of Health and Human Services the authority to set stricter regulations for abortion clinics — “similar” to those applied to ambulatory surgical centers — as necessary.
But the clinics would no longer be required to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical clinics, as was the case in House Bill 695, which flew through the Senate last week amid a public outcry. McCrory said Wednesday he would not sign the latter bill unless changes were made.
Pro-abortion rights advocates said the initial constraints would have forced 15 of the state’s 16 abortion clinics to cease operation due to large additional costs.
Suzanne Buckley, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, said even the looser language in the Senate’s bill would still spell financial trouble for many clinics.
She said she is also concerned that the Department of Health and Human Services’ new mandates would not be transparent under the new bill.
“This isn’t being driven by health and safety standards, but really by politics if you don’t even know what regulations are necessary to improve safety,” Buckley said.
The revised bill also did away with transfer agreements for abortion patients and only requires a physician present for one pill dose of a drug-induced abortion. It kept a ban on sex-selective abortion and limits abortion coverage under state health care plans.
A divisive discussion
Thursday’s floor debate drew a large crowd to the House chamber rafters, separated almost cleanly down the middle between pro-abortion rights activists dressed in pink and anti-abortion advocates in blue.
The three-hour exchange between House members was bitter, tense and emotionally charged, with bill supporters and opponents lashing out at each other’s arguments and seemingly unable to find any common ground.
“A woman’s right to an abortion does not exist in a vacuum,” said Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer (R-Mecklenburg). “Reasonable regulation and limitations may be placed on the method of abortion and the processes surrounding it.”
“We’ve made a mockery of women’s health and safety by taking a motorcycle bill and gutting it in order to pass sweeping legislation that will affect women’s lives,” Rep. Alma Adams (D-Guilford) fired back.
Rep. Ruth Samuelson (R-Mecklenburg), the main sponsor of the bill in the House, said several times the regulations were simply a necessary update of abortion clinic standards that have not been changed in almost two decades.
“We need to make sure that the facilites (women) go into are properly inspected, properly up to standards and that they are not putting their health in danger once (women) make that decision to move forward,” she said.
But Adams criticized the sudden move Wednesday by Samuelson and bill supporters to push forward new abortion language without advance notice.
“I recognize that this is a motorcycle bill, and they move pretty fast,” she said.
“I’m curious about why the public wasn’t given notice about the bill changes, especially when … it comes out under another number and name.”
“Yes, it was quick. It’s the end of session,” Samuelson said in response. “Things move more rapidly at this time of year.”
What’s next on the abortion bill front
It has been a long week for legislators and advocates on both sides of the abortion bills’ debate.
Still, Irene Godinez, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Health Systems Action Fund, said pro-abortion rights advocates continued to rally outside the legislative building and flood the inside gallery every day, whether or not action on legislation occurred.
“(Legislators) are reacting to us, because we keep showing up — every single time,” she said.
Godinez said she was appalled to see the House mirror the Senate in taking another undercover route to pursuing what she labels a regressive women’s health agenda.
“They keep changing the rules of the game,” she said.
Meanwhile, Barbara Holt, president of N.C. Right to Life, said she was pleased the legislature has taken firm, productive action on the bill so far.
“But I’ll be more pleased when it becomes law.”
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