First Posted: 7/26/2013
RALEIGH — The Republican-led Legislature on Thursday approved new abortion rules that backers say will make the procedure safer, but that critics say aim to restrict the ability of women to have abortions by forcing clinics to close.
The state Senate gave final approval to a measure giving the state Department of Health and Human Services the authority to regulate abortion clinics using the same standards as those for outpatient surgical centers “while not unduly restricting access.”
With Republicans in control of more state legislatures since the 2010 elections, a growing number of states have tightened rules for abortion clinics and imposed other restrictions. Republicans took control of the North Carolina General Assembly after the 2010 elections.
About half of states now require abortion facilities to meet standards intended for ambulatory surgical centers, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks restrictions on abortion rights.
“It’s not hard to figure this out. Same thing’s been done in all these other states. They’re shutting them down all over the United States,” said Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe.
Sen. Thom Goolsby countered that the new rules were written to protect the health and safety of women.
“What is wrong with reasonable standards?” said Goolsby, R-New Hanover.
Gov. Pat McCrory had threatened to veto abortion regulations that didn’t leave the rules to the judgment of the state health agency. The Republican governor said that the legislation crossed the line between protecting patient safety and restricting access to a legal medical procedure. McCrory said during his election campaign last fall that he would not sign any new abortion restrictions into law.
“All eyes are now on the governor,” said Suzanne Buckley, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina. “He made a campaign promise to voters back in October that he would not support any further restrictions on access to safe and legal abortion care in our state, and we are going to hold him to his word.”
NARAL, Planned Parenthood and others said they delivered petitions containing the signatures of tens of thousands of residents who oppose the proposed new regulations.
Tarah Tugman of Lenoir said that after listening to the debate leading up to the vote, she believed requiring abortion clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers is the minimum health care that women deserve.
“Praise God! I am so thankful,” Tugman said after the vote. “I will always support laws that protect unborn babies.”
Existing abortion clinic regulations haven’t been changed since the mid-1990s, Dr. Aldona Wos, the state Health and Human Services secretary, said earlier this month. Because there are only 10 inspectors reviewing hundreds of clinics and health facilities statewide, clinics can be examined only every three to five years, she said.
Only one abortion operator in North Carolina is a licensed ambulatory surgical center. Many of the other 15 clinics in the state won’t be able to comply with the regulations because it will be too costly to upgrade their facilities, women’s health groups said.
An ambulatory surgical center costs about $1 million more to build than an abortion clinic does, state Division of Health Service Regulation director Drexdal Pratt told lawmakers earlier this month. It’s unclear how much it would cost existing clinics to convert to higher standards and how many clinics could meet them and remain open, Pratt said.
Restrictions against insurance coverage for abortion were most likely to affect low-income families who would face new restrictions on having abortions covered by their insurance policies, said Kristin Rawls, 33, of Angier, who was visiting the General Assembly.
“I don’t know how it’s going to work if there are so few places where they can provide abortions. Will there be months-long waiting lists?” Rawls said. “It’s a very extreme law.”
The bill also would prohibit abortions for gender selection and allow any health care provider to opt out of participating in abortions, extending that option beyond doctors and nurses. The legislation also would prohibit abortion coverage in insurance plans offered by cities, counties or the online marketplace for private policies established under the federal health overhaul law. Abortions would be allowed if a pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, or to save the life of the mother.
Lawmakers were expected to close their annual session early today.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio