Lawmakers in the state House have passed a bill that would place more requirements on clinics that provide abortions in North Carolina.
While some legislators say the measure is not as restrictive as a similar bill passed in the Senate last week, abortion-rights advocates say this measure could seriously restrict womens’ access to the procedure.
Legislators passed Senate Bill 353 after three hours of debate Thursday. Just after the final vote was taken, a steady stream of onlookers dressed in pink t-shirts descended the stairs from the visitors’ gallery with disappointed looks on their faces. Juanita Sikorski was one of them.
"It’s another step in trying to close everything down and do it as immediately as possible. It’s another attempt to limit people’s rights and choices especially women’s choices," said Sikorski.
The bill was passed just one week after a similar measure, House Bill 695, passed the Senate. Its sponsors folded abortion clinic regulations into an unrelated measure and pushed it through. And that’s what supporters of Senate Bill 353 decided to do too. Democratic Representative Alma Adams of Greensboro says the process was shameful.
"There’s no reason to have brought this bill here the way they brought it. And then to sneak it in to a bill that was totally unrelated and to not even put that out in public notice, that’s not right. That's not the way we should do business."
Abortion rights advocates were surprised too. Paige Johnson is the Vice President for External Affairs for Planned Parenthood Central North Carolina, said "it has the potential of severely restricting access to safe and legal abortion and we have had hardly any opportunity to have input."
Senate Bill 353 would give the Department of Health and Human Services the authority to come up with rules to regulate clinics providing abortions. The measure passed last week in the Senate would require clinics to have the same standards as ambulatory surgery centers. That would have shut down all but one in the state.
But Johnson says giving DHHS and its Secretary Aldona Wos the exclusive authority to decide regulations isn’t right:
"I trust Secretary Wos is deeply committed to women's health. But she’s politically appointed. And so suddenly we have statute that gives a politically appointed position the authority to choose which regulations are going to be imposed on providers of safe and legal abortion."
Johnson says if this bill becomes law, she would be very concerned about whomever the next Secretary of the department might be. But Senate Bill 353’s Republican backers say abortion rights groups shouldn’t worry. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte introduced the bill on the House floor Thursday.
"This is really all about protecting the health and safety of women. We are not out here trying to shut down every abortion clinic in North Carolina except one. What we are trying to do is protect the health and safety of women by raising the standards of those clinics, standards which have not been raised since 1994." said Samuelson.
Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Vos has said she’d like to review those standards. And she has said she’d like more money to pay for more frequent inspections of clinics that provide abortions. Political observers say that was part of an effort by Secretary Vos and Governor Pat McCrory to stop last week’s bill from moving forward. This bill is supposed to be a compromise.
But to abortion rights opponents, it’s a victory. Barbara Holt heads North Carolina Right to Life. She’s pleased the bill would prohibit health plans on exchanges established under the federal Affordable Care Act from covering abortion.
"What we were looking to accomplish this session was to get the opt-out for the federal exchange, because we need to do that, that’s coming very quickly. They’re setting these exchanges up and states have to act, 22 states have already opted out and this will make the 23rd," said Holt.
It would also ban cities and counties from offering coverage in their employee health plans.
Other supporters of the bill aren’t concerned about the fact that it was pushed through at the last minute. Julie Emmons heads Right to Life’s Political Action Committee.
"This ability to attach provisions to different bills is just part of the rules of this current General Assembly. I have an end goal and that is for these provisions to become law because I believe that it will save thousands of lives per year," Emmons said.
The measure now goes to the Senate for consideration.