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Gov. Cooper moderates panel discussion in New Hanover County ahead of abortion bill veto

Ahead of his planned veto of an abortion bill tomorrow, Governor Roy Cooper held a roundtable panel discussion with experts in New Hanover County. His aim: to educate constituents, with the hope that they pressure local Republican representatives to vote against the veto override. Cooper only needs to flip one vote — the GOP has a veto-proof majority, but only if all members vote in lockstep.

Cooper has called out State Senator Michael Lee and Representative Ted Davis. During the the 2022 campaign, Lee advocated for legislation that closely resembles the abortion bill recently pushed through by Republicans – although advocates argue that additional measures in the bill make it more restrictive than what Lee had suggested.

Davis, meanwhile, publicly stated during the 2022 campaign that he didn’t support changing the state’s current abortion law — and said he wouldn’t be bullied by House Speaker Tim Moore into changing his mind. He was the lone Republican absent from the House vote on the bill, but has declined to comment to WHQR on his thoughts on the legislation or whether he will help the veto-override vote.

Cooper has said numerous times that he will veto SB20, the abortion bill, and is waiting the full allotted 10 days before doing so to educate North Carolinians about the bill's fine print.

Panelists discuss the bill's details

Current law allows abortion through the first 20 weeks of pregnancy for any reason, and after 20, for medical emergencies. All abortions performed after 20 weeks need to be reported to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

SB 20 would repeal current provisions, and replace them with the following: abortions for any reason may be performed until 12 weeks of pregnancy. From 12 to 20 weeks, in the cases of rape or incest, through 24 weeks if there is a “life-limiting” anomaly in the unborn child, and at any time if there is a medical emergency for the pregnant woman.

Kate Woodbury, a member of the North Carolina Council of Women, argued that the bill was made without any medical input.

“And I don't think there's anyone that could argue that anyone is more informed about reproductive health than physicians, right? So why are we inserting politics into medicine? It's absurd. It's dangerous,” she said.

The biggest concern, and point of confusion for members of the panel, is the vague language throughout the bill. Both OBGYNs on the panel agreed that there is simply no way to define terms such as “life-limiting” and what could constitute a true “medical emergency.”

Similar legislative language in other states has forced women around the country to take matters into their own hands before seeking emergency care, Cooper said.

“In some of these other states that have instituted bans, people have waited in the parking lot to be sick enough to have a procedure,” he said.

Chelsea Ward, an OBGYN with Women's Choice of Raleigh, Greensboro, and Charlotte, explained how the lack of clarity puts healthcare physicians in a dangerous bind.

“We don't understand and don't quite know what it is, what is the ‘life endangerment’. And that's because it's unique to everyone. It would be impossible to quantify in a piece of paper or document, Ward said. “And it's a little demeaning to be told what I can and can't do, when I'm looking at someone who may or may not die on my watch. And being forced to question whether I can or cannot do something that I know is the right thing to do. And I'm capable and trained to do it.”

Members on the panel say legislators may not understand what’s in the bill, since it was pushed out and passed over the span of three days. They say the language was intentionally vague and difficult to understand.

Members of the GOP have argued the bill is a “reasonable compromise,” even adding provisions such as paid parental leave, and better access to child care.

But abortion rights advocates cite physicians and abortion providers who say it’s not reasonable, and note that the bill places many stipulations and requirements for those seeking an abortion within the first 12 weeks, making the procedure less accessible. All of the current procedures such as telehealth prescriptions, and fewer office visits, that make medical abortions accessible are being repealed. That’s why members of Cooper’s panel said the bill is, effectively, a near-total ban.

There are also questions about invasion of privacy in the bill.

Under current law, abortions performed after 20 weeks must be reported to DHHS, however the new bill states that any abortion after 12 weeks must be reported. Within the report, physicians are now required to report “demographic and medical history information on the woman who had the abortion.” The informed consent portion of bill does not contain a clause asking women to give explicit consent to share this information with DHHS.

This has caused opponents of the bill to question whether this is considered a violation of HIPAA (the federal law that protects patient privacy). Kaitlin Warta, an OBGYN resident with Novant Health, felt this portion of the bill was inappropriate and failed to see how it was necessary other than extreme oversight.

“The other concerning thing about this bill, is that there's a requirement that ultrasound images get sent to the state with the best estimation of gestational age based off of those ultrasound images. It doesn't really say who's going to be looking at those if the person looking at them knows how to interpret them. And it's a violation of health information, the patient does not give permission to send these ultrasound pictures. It's something that's just mandated. So in a lot of ways, this bill is asking us to do some pretty unethical things,” Warta said.

The bill also stipulates more requirements for clinics to be considered qualified to provide abortions. Jenny Black, the CEO of Planned Parenthood for South Atlantic, noted that some of the currently licensed clinics in operation will have to close, as they don’t have the financial capacity to get the new certifications.

This effectively forces women, especially in rural areas, to travel further for abortions, and sets the precedent that hospitals will be the only places women can go to. More demand makes timelines harder to meet.

State Representative Deb Butler, who represents parts of New Hanover County including downtown Wilmington, said abortion-rights advocates could only hope one member of the legislature would help Cooper and his veto.

“They have that expression, you know, it's never too late to do the right thing [...] And I'm hopeful that we're in the week off now that maybe folks are having some reflective moments — and to uphold the promises that he made while campaigning to the women in their communities,” Butler said.

Back in October of 2022, WHQR and media partners asked state representative candidates what they would do about abortion bills when they came up.

Representative Ted Davis assured his constituents that he was not supportive of further restrictions:

“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.

At that town hall, Davis’ Democratic challenger, Amy DeLoach, questioned Davis’ voting record, noting that he had voted for bills in the past that have restricted abortion access.

Related: NC Voters Reject New Abortion Bans

At the end of the panel, Butler spoke up again, this time about the influence of think-tanks around the nation that draft legislation:

“[The bill], it’s not reflective of North Carolina values. And that's the problem, because when you start taking something designed by someone in another place, and trying to lay it over the people of North Carolina, that's a mistake. And that's wrong, and legislators shouldn't do that.”

Camille hails from Long Island, NY and graduated from Boston University with a BS in Journalism and double minors in Classical Civilizations and Philosophy. Her story focus revolves her deep care for children, young adults and mental health. You can reach her at cmojica@whqr.org.