RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – Senate Bill 20, the joint legislation to restructure abortion rights in North Carolina, has been added to the agenda for a reading on the House floor this afternoon.

It’s unclear if the “Care for Women Children and Families Act,” as it is called, will get full a full reading and final vote, but debate is expected. The meeting, scheduled for 3, was delayed to 3:30 when dozens more bills were added to the agenda during crossover week – the deadline for when bills filed in one chamber must be passed to the other.

Before the session began, Democrats staged a rally outside where speakers included Attorney General Josh Stein, a candidate for governor, and U.S. Reps. Deborah Ross (D-Wake) and Wiley Nickel (D-Chatham), both former members of the General Assembly. Numerous medical professionals also attended.

“Women’s reproductive health care decisions should not be made by a bunch of Republican legislators in Raleigh,” Stein posted on his Twitter feed. “Today is not a day to accept defeat. Today is a day to keep up the fight.”

Dozens of observers, some carrying signs, lined up outside the legislative meeting to get spots in the gallery of observers.

Because the conference committee for the General Assembly stripped the contents from a bill that had crossed over, there can be no amendments before the vote of the House. The bill then would have to be approved again in the Senate before going to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk, where it is likely to be vetoed or left unsigned.

It’s also unclear the level of bipartisan support the bill might generate, but Republicans have the supermajorities in the House and Senate to override any veto.

Senate Bill 20 started its controversial but brief lifespan on Wednesday morning in the meeting of the Joint Rules Committee, when a bill previously known as “Safe Surrender of Infants” was stripped and replaced by a 46-page version that was previewed at about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday and dropped officially some four hours later. That left some members confused and frustrated, many upset, a few emotional and others defiant in how it changes the way abortion and other women’s health issues would be handled in the state.

The compromise bill, presented by state Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth) and state Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry), sets a 12-week limit on elective abortion, 20 weeks for rape and incest and 24 weeks for a fetal anomalies-of-life exception. There is no limit when a mother’s life is in jeopardy.

The bill would make no changes in current law for medical abortions or the use of mifepristone, which currently is being reviewed nationally, and it would add maternity and paternity leave for teachers and state employees. There is funding to expand adoption, foster care and childcare programs, among other changes.

The bill is controversial not only because it resets a long-debated and sensitive issue but also because of the way it was developed, communicated and presented.

“This is a very complex issue,” Rep. Becky Carney (D-Mecklenburg) said during the joint committee meeting. “The way we proceeded to have – by my calculation – about 15 minutes from a staff person who laid out about 48 pages.

“I go to bed at 8:30. When this bill came up at 10:15 [Tuesday night], I had not read it when I woke up this morning. My phone and email were blowing up.”

There was a lot of blowing from members of both chambers in the General Assembly, from members of the medical community and the public at large and from advocacy groups that had been on both sides of this issue since before Roe v. Wade became law in 1973.

State Sen. Amy Galey (R-Alamance)

“This bill is not a ban on abortion. To say otherwise is propaganda,” Sen. Amy Galey (R-Alamance), one of its proponents, told WGHP in an email. “This bill allows for legal abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks, for reasons of rape or incest up to 20 weeks, because of a fatal fetal anomaly up to 24 weeks, and for the health of the mother throughout the pregnancy. There are many in our caucus who would like to have seen a much more restrictive bill, but the reality is that would not get enacted into law. 

“This bill will save the lives of unborn children but respects the autonomy of women during early pregnancy.  North Carolina is a leader in the nation with its commonsense, reasonable approach to this difficult and complicated issue.”

State Rep. Ashton Clemmons (D-Greensboro) speaks during the Joint Rules Committee meeting. (WGHP)

State Rep. Ashton Clemmons (D-Greensboro) was emotional as she discussed the issue during the joint meeting, when she asked questions about the processes for identifying rape and incest – “There is no requirement for reporting to law enforcement for a woman to go to a physician and say, I’ve been raped. The doctor can go forward,” Rep. Kristin Baker (R-Cabarrus) told her – and what informed consent would look like when someone is trying to obtain an abortion.

“I’ve been trying to pull myself together to comment on this bill today,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “Like all bills, I think for our state, but I also think in terms of my daughter. I spend time with 12-year-old girls because my daughter is one.

“I know that 1 in 5 of them will be victims of attempted or completed rape. Only 30% will ever report that rape, because they are afraid; it might have been someone in their family. They don’t know what they did wrong and why they are in this position.

“I think about what if this girl didn’t report that rape and then finds out she’s pregnant and sits for weeks and doesn’t know what to do. I don’t know about another 72 hours [of required wait time].

“I feel at a loss at what to tell the girls I spend my time with. I’m just saying where I am. For all of our daughters, I will be voting no.”

Change in the law

Since Roe v. Wade was overturned last summer in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Boggs decision, which said abortion laws were the province of the state, North Carolina had been operating with a 20-week abortion window.

Most abortions are now banned in 13 states, and Georgia has a 6-week ban. A similar 6-week limit is under review by the Florida Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court on April 21 extended access to the drug mifepristone, which is used in a cocktail with misoprostol is the most common form of abortion.

Krawiec said the bill is “pro-life, pro-woman legislation. … It will save lives and provide opportunities and modernizes our pro-life laws.”

The process

NCGA legislative aide Jason Moran-Bates answered many questions from members during Wednesday morning’s hearing. (WGHP)

State Rep. Robert Reives II, the Democratic leader in the House whose District 54 includes Randolph County, decried how fast it all had happened.

“Whatever you believe,” he told the Joint Rules Committee, “this bill should’ve had a broad input. This bill should be the most deliberated of all bills we do. This bill should have gone through a full committee process in the House and Senate with full discussion. We have people scrambling – I have an objection to this process – the feelings of people. …. People who had no input to what this was going to look like.

“This saddens me as an elected official. Going forward, I hope that we see that.

“I would be shocked that we could put together a 46-page bill in the dead of night and it would do everything you wanted it to do on this issue.”

Sen. Dan Blue (D-Wake), the Senate minority leader, decried that 13 of the 17 women in the Senate are Democrats who had been “totally ignored.”

“We meet every day as a caucus,” he said. “Nobody had any idea yesterday at our meeting what might be coming as a committee substitute. Whoever wrote this could not bring the broadcloth of experience that all 50 members of the Senate can bring.

“We are going to potentially pass out and vote on the Senate floor one of the most complex subjects in modern medicine, something medical experts should have weighed in on.

“This is a poor showing of democracy, at least in a representative body. This might work well in an autocracy … Russia or China. We’re in the United States, in North Carolina ….opposing ideas should compete in the marketplace of ideas.”

Most questions about details – Sen. Chad Chaudhuri (D-Wake) had many – were handled by legislative aide Jason Moran-Bates, and sometimes Baker, a physician, offered her insights for members.

Public input

Courtney Geels, a nurse from Durham who ran for Congress as the Republican nominee in the 4th Congressional District. was one of those who spoke in favor of the bill. She said she is about 20 weeks pregnant. (WGHP)

Numerous members of the public gave 1.5-minute speeches on both sides of the issue. There was the representative of the North Carolina Family Policy Council who suggested that this bill compromises too much, and there were the spokespersons of Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union who decried that the bill went too far and attacked women’s health.

Doctors and some nurses spoke for the bill but also against it because of the pressure its processes place on physicians and how its in-person requirements for medical abortions are onerous.  Some said its restrictions would drive off physicians in an already stressed system. Some said the limitations affect the health of many.

Jerry Shill of the God & Country Christian Alliance said he had been an antiabortion crusader since 1970, before Roe, “praying about it and being active,” and that he favored a conception bill to protect unborn babies.

“Speaking only on the issue of abortion restrictions, if this is the best we can do, we certainly need to do it,” he said.