UPDATE, July 12, 2:10 p.m.: Gov. McCrory has confirmed to a local television station that he would not veto SB 353, the house version of the abortion restrictions.
The North Carolina house voted 74-41 Thursday to pass SB 353, a bill originally written as a piece of motorcycle safety legislation that was amended Wednesday, to the surprise of some state lawmakers, to include numerous abortion restrictions. Supporters of the bill spoke Thursday of how the legislation could protect women from “vaginal organisms” at unclean facilities, among other things, while there was virtually no mention of motorcycles during the debate.
The amendments, a version of which were previously included in a bill designed to ban Sharia law in the state before the governor threatened a veto, include regulations that could restrict access to safe abortion, limit medication abortions, ban sex-selective abortions, and prevent pregnant people from using insurance to pay for abortion care.
Thursday’s three-hour house debate was overall more subdued than recent debates in states like Ohio and Texas; Republican Speaker Thom Tillis said that any noise or distraction would result in the gallery being emptied.
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Some Democratic lawmakers noted during the debate that the majority of the state’s legislative session has revolved around deregulation, and this is the first bill that proposes an increase in government oversight. “The North Carolina government wants to deregulate everything except women’s bodies,” said Rep. Sam Joe Queen (D-Haywood), who complained that although he was on the state judiciary committee, which was considering the motorcycle safety bill on Wednesday, he received no warning prior to the hearing that abortion amendments had been added to it.
Although the seemingly sneaky method of getting the bill to the chamber was brought up many times by politicians opposing SB 353—Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Fayetteville) called it a “rewrite by moonlight” in his testimony—it was the effect that potential clinic closures could have on the poor that received the most attention. A number of attempts to draw a connection between the impact of SB 353 and lawmakers’ previous refusal to expand Medicaid, maintain family planning funds, or support teaching age-appropriate comprehensive sex education in schools were ruled off-topic by Tillis.
Citing a laundry list of bacteria that could potentially harm women, from staph to herpes, state Rep. Pat McElraft (R-Carteret) defended the clinic regulations by arguing that clinics that aren’t properly inspected to ensure they are sterile could expose women to “vaginal organisms” that could cause illness or death:
State Rep. Michele Presnell (R-Burnsville) expressed impatience with how much time was being devoted to debating the bill; it was the first time the version of the legislation containing anti-abortion amendments had been discussed among the full house. “I’m just tired of listening to this whole thing,” Rep. Presnell testified, after saying she would never enter an abortion clinic. “Personally, I prefer that [the pregnant patient] plan ahead. There are a lot of birth procedures that you can take care of in the way of birth control.” Presnell said she hopes any woman seeking an abortion “ask[s] the Lord” if that’s what she should do.
State Rep. Pat Hurley (R-Randolph) asked if there are hospitals that offer abortions in case clinics close because of the bill. “Don’t we have hospitals?” she asked, according to the Carolina Mercury Twitter account, adding, “If they don’t plan ahead, they can go to hospitals can’t they?” Reproductive rights supporters pointed out in the wake of Hurley’s comments that many hospitals do not perform abortions, and abortion procedures tend to be more expensive at hospitals than at clinics.
During the debate on the motorcycle safety act, the subject of motorcycles only entered the debate once Thursday. “I own a motorcycle,” said state Rep. Beverly Earle (D-Mecklenberg). “I want to let my motorcycle buddies know when I vote against this, it has nothing to do with them.”
“We are appalled but not surprised that the House has passed SB 353 in a largely party-line vote,” Suzanne Buckley, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, said in a statement. “This bill is the most egregious attack on women’s reproductive rights and safety that we’ve seen in over 40 years. This bill will severely limit women’s access to safe and legal abortion care to the detriment of North Carolina women. The sponsors of SB 353 have shown an utter disregard for women’s health and safety, continuously putting anti-choice political ideology over fair process and democracy.”
The afternoon vote ended with Tillis praising the gallery for remaining silent throughout the entire debate. During that speech, an audience member shouted out at the legislature, and half of the gallery was cleared.
The bill now heads back to the senate for a vote. Should the senate concur, the bill would then go to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory for signature. McCrory said Tuesday that he would veto the Sharia law bill that contained similar amendments, but he supports SB 353. McCrory promised during his 2012 gubernatorial campaign that he would veto any law that restricts abortion.