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Cape Fear region state representative candidates on the future of North Carolina abortion law

October 19, 2022 town hall for state representative candidates, hosted by WHQR, WECT, and Port City Daily.
October 19, 2022 town hall for state representative candidates, hosted by WHQR, WECT, and Port City Daily.

At WHQR’s recent town hall for state representative candidates, one of the top questions was about abortion — an issue that’s been effectively sent to the states by the recent Supreme Court decision.

Like many states, North Carolina has seen its abortion laws debated and litigated over the years. As it currently stands, state law allows abortions up to 20 weeks with exceptions for the life of the mother, but not for fetal abnormalities, incest, or rape.

In the wake of the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision, there's ample political appetite on both sides to change that law. The Republicans currently hold the state House and Senate and are pursuing a veto-proof majority meaning they could unilaterally rewrite the law, but it's unclear what that would look like exactly.

House Speaker Tim Moore supports what's sometimes called a heartbeat law, restricting abortion to six weeks, while Senate President Phil Berger has suggested a ban after the first trimester, around 13 weeks.

Both have said there would be exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. And while Moore and Berger differ on when the ban would kick in, both would be more restrictive than the current law

At WHQR’s recent town hall, we asked candidates for local state-level races how they felt about the law as it stands right now, with its 20-week limit and a host of requirements designed to discourage abortions.

John Hinnant, a Republican challenger for House District 18, which covers northern New Hanover County and downtown Wilmington, said he wanted a bipartisan approach.

“I don't believe there'll be any changes to it without bipartisan support and the endorsement of the governor. I don't feel like we're going to have any positive outcome. As a result, if we don't have bipartisan support for changing the law. I think anybody who wants to codify Roe might be more extreme than the 20 weeks – 20 weeks is quite late in the pregnancy. So I don't propose any changes without bipartisan support,” Hinnant said.

When asked where he would place restrictions on abortion, Hinnat said between 12 and 15 weeks – more restrictive than the current law.

Hinnant’s opponent is Deb Butler, the Democratic incumbent in House 18.

“Let's be clear about one thing. The Speaker of the North Carolina House has said that if he achieves a supermajority, there will be an abortion ban passed in North Carolina. So any conversation that moderates that position is a lie. They have moderated their position on this issue because they recognize that women are irritated by this conversation, that they want rights to control their own bodies, to plan their own families, to make their own educational and vocational choices without interference from the government. So, having said that, the law of North Carolina in my opinion should stay exactly the way it is. We should codify Roe to secure its permanence in the law,” Butler said.

So while Butler painted Republican claims of a moderate abortion policy as dishonest, she isn't arguing to make North Carolina's current laws less restrictive.

By contrast, Marcia Morgan said she would do that. Morgan is the Democratic challenger for State Senate District 7, which covers most of New Hanover County.

“I actually believe that abortion is the right of the woman to choose. There's been a lot of comments that are sort of inflammatory about late-term abortions. That is not really a true thing. Anybody that has been pregnant or been around a woman who is pregnant when they get into the sixth, seventh, eighth month, they plan to have that baby. They are buying clothes, they picked a name. So the question of late-term abortion is to me, is very moot, when it would only be under very extreme circumstances. I think that abortion should be a woman's choice, in conjunction with her doctor, her faith, and her family,” Morgan said.

Morgan's opponent is incumbent Republican state senator Michael Lee, who kicked off his answer by referencing his opinion piece which recently ran in the StarNews.

“I think a woman should have the right to choose in the first trimester. And after that, I think there should be exceptions for rape, incest viability of the fetus, and the health of the mother. When you talk about people using very personal issues for political gain, that's one of them. And to say that the speaker is going to make the decision for the state is just wrong,” Lee said.

Like Senate President Phil Berger, Michael Lee's plan is more restrictive than the current law but not as restrictive as what House Speaker Moore is proposing. In response to a follow-up question, Lee said he would negotiate with Republicans if they tried to enact a law stricter than the one he proposes and that he would vote against a stricter version if it came to the floor.

In House race 17, which covers Leland, Western Brunswick County, and the county's southernmost beachfront, Democratic challenger Eric Terashima was one of the most direct candidates, saying he would remove all restrictions on abortion.

“The current state's abortion laws are far too restrictive. I would work towards an end state just like what M. Morgan described. The decision for an abortion is between a woman, her faith, her doctor, and her family. Period,” Terashima said.

The incumbent, Republican Frank Iler, said he was paying close attention to Speaker Moore's lead, adding that there would be a full debate in the upcoming legislative session.

We will have a full debate and discussion. In the next session, we'll get full input from citizens, doctors, scientists – there will be input and hearings. And so at that point, we can come up with a reasonable bill at that point. I think any effort to to second guess or outguess what can happen with 170 lawmakers and the governor is a little bit foolish at this point,” Iler said.

Pushed for his personal view on the law, Iler said, “I don't know at this point. But right now it's 20 weeks. And I think that's, that's reasonable at this point. But I'm not a doctor. And I'm not a not a woman. So I'm not going to bet on that’s the best deal.”

In House District 20, covering eastern New Hanover County, Republican incumbent Ted Davis said he would respect the current law. He also spoke on his willingness to differ with Speaker Moore on the restrictiveness of a new abortion law.

“I support what the law is right now in North Carolina. And that is that a woman can have access to an abortion up to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Then after that, in order to have an abortion, I believe in reasonable restrictions: incest, rape, viability of the fetus, or the health of the mother. I've had issues with a speaker before where he is wanting me to vote a certain way. And I said, ‘I'm sorry, I'm not going to do it. I don't think that's what's best for the people I represent. And if you want to take issue with it, that's fine, but I'm not going to vote the way you want me to,’ and I haven't,” Davis said.

Davis’ Democratic challenger, Amy DeLoach, questioned Davis’ voting record, noting that he had voted for bills in the past that have restricted abortion access, and she was clear that she would like to remove those restrictions entirely.

“I do believe that an abortion is the sole right of a woman to make. She should be able to make her own healthcare decisions and be able to decide when she wants to start a family. The government has no business in this decision at all or at any point,” DeLoach said.

Below: The candidates' town hall, hosted by WHQR, WECT, and Port City Daily.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.