A Republican-led effort to ban most abortions after 12 weeks in North Carolina seems poised to become law.
Chatham officials and community members, however, have voiced strong opposition to the legislation, calling it harmful and restrictive for people who give birth.
The bill, Senate Bill 20, passed last week along party lines and was subsequently vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper at a rally in downtown Raleigh on Saturday.
A veto override took place Tuesday evening. Both chambers overruled the veto, along part lines. The bill is now slated to become law on July 1.
N.C. Speaker of the House Tim Moore and Senate Leader Phil Berger assured reporters Monday that Republicans had the necessary votes to override Cooper’s veto, meaning the bill would become law.
Moore called the bill “middle-of-the-road” because it is less restrictive on abortion than other Republican-controlled states.
Republicans hold a supermajority in both chambers of the N.C. General Assembly. Cooper and his Democratic colleagues needed to persuade just one Republican in either chamber to switch sides to uphold the veto. Moore and Berger’s projections indicate Cooper failed to do so.
One of the most vocal opponents of S.B. 20 has been N.C. House Minority Leader Chatham Rep. Robert Reives II. He said the bill was rushed through the legislative process and feared the bill would have ripple effects beyond abortion that could harm birthing people.
“I am concerned that this bill is going to prevent women from seeking the health care they need,” Reives told the News + Record. “Procedures that are used to help pregnant women with miscarriages are comparable to procedures banned by this legislation. Doctors and patients are rightfully worried that this ban will effectively criminalize everyday, life-saving medical procedures.”
In a joint statement with Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, Reives said the bill was crafted “behind closed doors.” He expressed concern that the state could see a rise in maternal mortality, miscarriages and inadequate access to healthcare for families in poverty.
Many of these concerns were echoed by Sen. Natalie Murdock, who also represents Chatham County. During debate over S.B. 20 on the legislative floor last week, Murdock — along with several other Black female senators — said they were not asked for input on the bill. She said this was especially concerning because Black women face high rates of pregnancy-related death.
“What if I go through my pregnancy and things are going great?” Murdock said on the Senate floor last week. “And I develop preeclampsia, and my pregnancy becomes high risk.”
Murdock previously filed bills this year and in 2021 aimed at improving Black maternal health. Neither of those bills reached committee discussion.
While the abortion ban after 12 weeks is the headliner of the 46-page S.B. 20, there are also dozens of other provisions that could change healthcare for people who give birth. Democrats say the abortion restrictions create unnecessary barriers to abortion access.
North Carolina currently prohibits abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with limited exceptions for medical emergencies. Exceptions to the new 12-week abortion prohibition proposal include 20 weeks for rape and incest, up to 24 weeks for fetal anomalies, and any stage abortion if a physician determines the mother’s life is in danger due to a medical emergency.
Along with the ban after 12 weeks, the bill also requires at least two in-person visits with a medical professional before undergoing an abortion procedure. Three visits to a doctor would be required for people seeking abortion pills. For each appointment, women would have to plan for travel, take time off from work, and find childcare. Only nine of the state’s 100 counties have clinics that offer abortion services. S.B. 20 also changes to licensing requirements for abortion facilities, making it more difficult for them to perform abortions.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Gender Equity Policy Institute show states banning or restricting abortion have higher teen pregnancy, Black maternal mortality and overall maternal death rates. Women of color are more likely to be uninsured, requiring them to raise money for abortions and to delay seeking them.
“I’m a proud state senator of Senate District 20,” said Murdock during the debate of S.B. 20 last week. “One of the few women in this chamber that can still hopefully, God willing, have children. Love this state, North Carolina native, but I’m absolutely horrified. Horrified at the prospect of having a child in my home state. I’m horrified.”
Murdock, who is a Black woman, said she was already taking steps to seek potential maternal healthcare in other states.
Many of the other provisions in the bill, however, would likely have received bipartisan support had the bill not also included the 12-week abortion ban.
For example, the bill would provide millions in state funding for contraception access and increase funding for child care, foster care and paid parental leave. The bill would also allow certified nurse midwives to serve as primary care providers and practice independently without physician oversight, which midwifery organizations across the state have pushed for.
State employees and teachers who give birth would be guaranteed eight weeks of paid parental leave, and partners or adoptive parents would receive four weeks of leave, under the proposed legislation.
The bill also supports increased funding for foster care families by providing more than $120 million over the next two years in increased payments for foster families. This funding includes more money per foster care child and increased subsidies for high-performing child care centers.
S.B. 20 also includes misdemeanor charges for domestic abusers, which could close a gun violence loophole, WRAL reports, by not allowing those who abuse their partners to purchase guns.
When Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer, Chatham County District Attorney Jeff Nieman said he would not prosecute anyone seeking an abortion. Last May, He pledged not to bring criminal cases against people who have abortions or doctors who perform abortions, even if the practice is outlawed.
“We cannot stand for this assault on women and private reproductive healthcare decisions,” Nieman said last summer. “I have committed to join more than 60 prosecutors nationwide in this pledge not to prosecute women who obtain abortions nor the health care professionals who perform or assist in these procedures.”
At the time, however, there were no trigger laws in place in N.C. that would outlaw abortion. When asked last week, Nieman said he stood by his previous comments.
“We’ve never once had a criminal complaint related to abortion,” Nieman told the News + Record last week. He said that history dates back at least to the time of his predecessor, Jim Woodall who served as Chatham DA from 2005 to 2022. “I hope, and expect that will remain the case.”
Nieman said if a criminal complaint regarding abortion were to land on his desk, he would examine it on a case-by-case basis, but he said that seemed highly unlikely. He said he trusts doctors to follow the law, even if they disagree with it.
“My overarching responsibility is community safety,” the DA said. “To me, this seems like an instance where the legislature is getting very deep into healthcare. And from what I have heard and read, it doesn’t appear that medical professionals’ opinions weighed very heavily on the decision to enact this law.” The first-year DA added he was concerned that S.B. 20 had the potential to endanger people’s lives.
The primary demographic this bill would impact is young people. Abortion restrictions in other states have led to increased teenage pregnancies and increased likelihood of birth complications.
In Chatham County, Northwood High School senior Lily Kate Witcher is one of the young people concerned about the potential impact of the bill. She said she wouldn’t support any bill that limits access to reproductive health care. She believes S.B. 20 would make it more difficult for women to get abortions.
“We’re in 2023 and access to abortion and reproductive health care is still being restricted,” Witcher told the News + Record. “It almost feels like we’re going backward.”
She said the legislation puts unnecessary “roadblocks” for people seeking vital medical care. Witcher said many of her peers fail to recognize the life-altering nature of pregnancy until it is too late. For that reason, she said, it’s important for people to make their own choice for their bodies, rather than have it regulated by the General Assembly.
“Pregnancy could really happen to anyone my age,” Witcher said. “Personally, I think most of my peers in high school are likely unprepared for everything pregnancy entails.”
A veto override vote of S.B. 20 occurred after press time Tuesday, this story will be updated online at chathamnewsrecord.com. If the veto override is sustained, the bill will become law in 10 days if it does not receive the signature of Gov. Cooper.