Bill Limiting Abortions Gains Traction

May 20, 2011

A bill that opponents of abortion rights have pushed for years is moving through the state legislature. House Bill 854, known as the "Woman's Right to Know Act," would mandate counseling, a waiting period, and an ultrasound before a woman could receive an abortion. Supporters of the bill say the measure would give women more information to make an informed choice. But opponents say the measure is designed to intimidate women.

Earlier this week, Democratic representative Alma Adams of Greensboro didn't mince words when she told a crowded press conference how much she dislikes House Bill 854. 

Alma Adams: "What it really wants women to know is that the government has no respect for you as a person, or your ability to think or make decisions about your health without their interference. This bill attempts to frighten, shame and terrorize women."

Adams doesn't like the bill's requirement that physicians counsel patients about alternatives to abortion in person or by telephone at least 24 hours before the procedure. Doctors or technicians providing the abortion would also have to give the patient an ultrasound. They'd have to describe the fetus, give the patient the opportunity to hear its heart beat, and for the first time in the state, the bill would establish a 24 hour waiting period. 

Elizabeth Nash: "North Carolina has not really addressed abortion restrictions in a number of years."

Elizabeth Nash is with the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights policy organization whose research is used by both sides of the abortion debate. 

Nash: "And so in a way North Carolina is reintroducing itself to the abortion issue."

Nash says that states across the country have passed restrictions on abortion in recent years. Laws requiring waiting periods or counseling requirements are becoming more common, especially in statehouses controlled by Republicans. Most of those measures were inspired by a 1992 Supreme Court decision holding that states can restrict abortion as long as they don't place an undue burden on the woman seeking the procedure. But Nash says North Carolina's bill goes a few steps further.

Nash:  "This ultrasound requirement is fairly new. It's very similar to a law that was adopted in Oklahoma and that is currently blocked from going into effect due to a court case that is challenging the law."

And Nash says, the bill would also require the parent of a minor seeking an abortion to obtain notarized consent. But lawmakers here don't seem to mind pushing the envelope- especially when it comes to mandating an ultrasound before abortion. Republican Paul Stam is the House Majority Leader. 

Paul Stam: "The reason the opponents are frantic about this particular bill is because both sides know that if women have this information specifically including the ultrasound, a whole lot of them will not choose to have an abortion."

Stam says seeing an ultrasound of his daughter in utero years ago was an almost magical experience for him. Planned Parenthood clinics already offer patients ultrasounds before abortions, but Stam thinks every clinic in North Carolina should be required by the state to give them. He says the Democratic leaders who used to be in power never gave this measure the attention it deserved. 

Stam: "The reason we're doing it now is because they did not allow it to come up for the last 12 years. We could have passed this in 1997 if the Senate had just taken it up. We had the votes..but they just drew a little moat around it and would not allow it to come up."

This year, supporters of the bill are optimistic that it will come to a vote and pass. Barbara Holt is the state president of North Carolina Right to Life.

Barbara Holt: "I think the leadership is pro-life, they support the bill. In the past we've gotten bipartisan support…like back in 97 when it passed the House. There was bipartisan support for…There are Republicans and Democrats that do support the legislation the Woman's Right to Know. "

Planned Parenthood Vice President Melissa Reed agrees that the measure has a good chance this year, thanks to House Majority Leader Paul Stam. 

Melissa Reed: "I believe that he's keeping very tight reins on the majority and that they will have the number of votes they need to pass this out of the House."

Republican leaders haven't said when they plan to introduce the bill in the House. It's not clear whether there's enough support to pass the measure in the Senate.