Thursday, July 18, 2024

‘There is still time’: Gov. Cooper talks abortion ban with local healthcare advocates prior to veto

Gov. Roy Cooper hosted a roundtable discussion at CFCC in Wilmington Wednesday to educate the public on the details of Senate Bill 20. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper is expected to veto a bill Saturday that would ban abortions after the first trimester of pregnancy and impose additional restrictions on healthcare access. 

Cooper visited New Hanover County Wednesday in an effort to educate the public on the bill’s details and encourage voters to urge their representatives not to override his veto.

READ MORE: General Assembly passes 12-week abortion ban, local Republicans silent on vote

The GOP has a supermajority in both chambers, indicating the legislation could pass without Cooper’s signature.

Only one Republican vote is needed to sustain the veto.

“There is still time,” Cooper said at a roundtable discussion at Cape Fear Community College’s Union Station.

The event welcomed medical professionals, abortion rights organizations and Rep. Deb Butler to speak to the language and regulations placed within the bill. Republicans introduced what Cooper called “the disaster of a bill” on May 4 and passed it within 48 hours, leaving little room for discussion.

“This legislation has been painted by Republicans as a reasonable compromise, 12-week ban,” Cooper said. “The way I read the legislation is, it is none of those things, and it operates as an effective abortion ban for most women.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the 620,327 reported abortions in the U.S. in 2020, 93% were performed at less than 13 weeks, almost 6% were conducted between 14 and 20 weeks, and less than 1% were sought after 21 weeks.

The governor specifically called out four legislators — Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover), Rep. Ted Davis (R-New Hanover), and Reps. Tricia Cotham (R-Mecklenburg) and John Bradford (R-Mecklenburg) —  for “not honoring their platforms” they ran on during last year’s election.

Davis, who was absent for the vote last week, campaigned to retain the current 20-week allowance on abortions. He also said publicly he would go against what House Speaker Tim Moore wants and not be persuaded to vote on more restrictive regulations.

Port City Daily reached out to Davis to ask if he had intentions to vote for the veto override.

“At this time, I do not have any comment,” he responded in an email.

Lee, also targeted by Cooper, campaigned he would be “comfortable” with legislation that restricted abortions through the first trimester.

“While Senate Bill 20 provides significant funding for families and children, I realize the focus has been on the section that deals with abortion,” Lee wrote to PCD. “As for Roy Cooper, he lied about my position on this issue during the campaign, and he is doing it again.”

During a political forum hosted in New Hanover County by media partners Port City Daily, WHQR and WECT, Lee said a woman should have the right to choose in the first three months, with exceptions after that point for rape, incest, health and of the mother and viability of the fetus. It’s the same language that is stated in S.B. 20.

During Wednesday’s roundtable, registered nurse and healthcare advocate Marla Barthen indicated she spoke with both Lee and Davis during campaign season.

“I feel like I’m a trusted person to have these conversations,” she said. “I was shocked because Sen. Lee talked about a 12-week ban, but all these other stipulations [were] loaded on top of that. It’s just overreach.”

Lee was one of the decision makers finalizing the language of the bill.

The legislation would restrict abortion to within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, down from 20 weeks, but it also allows healthcare workers to abstain from providing medical care on “moral, ethical, or religious grounds.” The bill asserts abortions performed after 12 weeks must be done in a hospital setting as opposed to an abortion clinic or ambulatory surgery facility.

Barthen said Davis made promises to keep everything the same.

“Women have been misled,” Barthen added.

Rep. Deb Butler at Gov. Cooper’s round table discussion Wednesday at CFCC. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

Rep. Butler was the only Cape Fear representative to vote against Senate Bill 20 and one of the primary sponsors on House Bill 439, loosening abortions restrictions. She said Wednesday the bill does not just impact women but entire families.

“I don’t think my colleagues understood the breadth of this bill,” Butler said. “It’s time for everyone to pause and reflect and become informed by asking professionals in the field what the true import of the bill is.”

Dr. Kaitlin Warta and Dr. Chelsea Ward, both OB-GYNs, touted the negative impact additional barriers will place on women seeking abortions.

Ward said allowing healthcare workers to abstain on moral grounds is “unnecessary” language since that practice already occurs. Doctors who do not feel comfortable performing procedures, such as abortions, can choose not to and refer patients elsewhere. This is referred to as “conscience rights” and protected by federal statutes. 

S.B. 20 also requires a total of three in-person appointments for anyone seeking an abortion, which Warta said is “not evidence based” and does not “make abortions any safer.”

“It is simply an intentional barrier to stop women from getting the care they need,” she said.

According to the doctor, the provision essentially restricts medication abortions to 70 days. This will affect more than 60% of patients who choose to undergo a medication abortion in the privacy of their own homes.

Planned Parenthood South Atlantic communications director Molly Rivera asserted on a call to Port City Daily the legislation limits medication abortion to 70 days, as patients have to jump through more hoops to get it.

“Providers have to confirm the gestational age of a pregnancy,” Rivera explained. “And then the patient is forced to wait 72 hours for another appointment.”

The 72-hour mandatory waiting period was enacted in 2015. 

“So in practice,” Rivera added, “it leads to people losing a week because of the mandate for an in-person appointment.”

Warta added the same medication is often used for women in their second trimester to make certain procedures or inductions safer, more effective and decrease blood loss. Restricting abortion to 12 weeks could in turn make it more difficult to access the medication for other procedures. 

Ward spoke of her experience with pregnant women, mostly in the second trimester, needing to terminate a pregnancy for health reasons or due to fetal anomalies. S.B. 20 allows for life-threatening exceptions throughout the pregnancy and up to 20 weeks for fetal anomalies.

“A lot of anomalies or maternal issues do not develop until the second trimester or are not identified until up to 18 weeks or so,” she said. “So, for every woman or any family for that matter, they will not be able to be advised for care here in North Carolina, receive their care here, and they too will become a medical refugee.”

North Carolina has become an access point for people in neighboring states with stricter abortion laws  to seek healthcare. In April 2022, North Carolina physicians performed 3,190 abortions, but the number increased to 4,360 in August following the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade; it’s considered the greatest percentage increase in any state.

Planned Parenthood, specifically, has become a safe place for many of those patients, though some locations have a waiting list for appointments. Rivera said at a few of South Atlantic’s locations, the wait can be up to three weeks.

“What would these three in-person appointments do to that waiting list, and you’ve got this 72-hour period that’s longer than it took these legislators to introduce and pass this legislation?” Cooper asked Jenny Black, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of South Atlantic.

“It will choke an already constrained ecosystem,” she said, explaining clinics already see an uptick of patients with a limited number of providers.

There are only nine counties in North Carolina where abortion clinics are located, so even in-state residents are driving long distances for care, she added. 

The added stipulation that abortions after 12 weeks are required to be done in a hospital setting, further restricts access. At least 20 counties in the state don’t have hospitals, and of those that do, 38 don’t have labor, delivery and OBGYN services. New Hanover County has one location — Novant New Hanover Regional Medical Center — that would qualify.

Velva Jenkins, CEO of YWCA, said women in rural counties limited to transportation are disproportionately impacted, as well as women of color and people from LGBTQ+ communities.

Depending on where in North Carolina a resident lives, the closest state to seek an elective abortion after 12 weeks, if S.B. 20 becomes law, would be South Carolina. Its law currently allows abortions up to 22 weeks; however, legislators there are also trying to pass more restrictive regulations. Virginia allows abortions through the second trimester to about 26 weeks; abortions in Tennessee are illegal after six weeks.

“This is a ban because it stops abortion at 12 weeks and makes it near impossible to get an abortion before 12 weeks,” Black said. “These additional barriers do nothing but slow and prohibit the access to healthcare, which we find in no other area of healthcare. We’re trying to get more people healthcare across the state in every area, except abortions. We find that to be really politically motivated and not rooted in science or medicine.”

Ward referenced examples of women with cancer or other medical issues — such as cardiac or pulmonary issues or with history of  blood clots — who were not intending to get pregnant, as it could be detrimental to their health.

“Someone with a rare diagnosis of cervix cancer at the same time as a diagnosis of pregnancy is stuck in a horrible conundrum in that they have to meet with several series of doctors,” Ward said. “And I don’t know about you, but I certainly do not get first dibs on doctors’ appointments these days and have to sometimes wait weeks, if not months at times, to be seen.”

Dr. Chelsea Ward talks about the “unnecessary” medical restrictions placed within Senate Bill 20 at Gov. Cooper’s round table discussion Wednesday at CFCC. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

Barthen said she had an abortion seven years ago, and considered herself privileged to have informative access and a car to get her there.

“I did not intend to get pregnant because I had a genetic blood clot disorder,” she said. “Just the state of being pregnant put me at higher risk. The thought of having to make my three appointments. … But then I had to face the protestors yelling at me going inside and leaving. I don’t want to have to go through that six times.”

The new legislation would lessen the time a doctor has to counsel a patient and also decrease the time a family has to make a decision. This is problematic when many times women don’t even discover they’re pregnant until late in the first trimester, Ward said. The average timeframe is six to eight weeks.

Also included in S.B. 20, a medical care commission is directed to rewrite regulations for clinics, already facing annual inspections and licensing, by Oct. 1.

“Within that revision process, the commission could further impose restrictions than we already have to contend with,” Rivera said. 

Black said at the roundtable, this could include costly upfitting, and some buildings would never meet the standards.

“And all are medically unnecessary,” Cooper added.

S.B. 20 also prohibits phone consultations and requires the pregnant patient to view an ultrasound of the fetus and listen to its heartbeat. It requires medical information to be sent to the state health department, which multiple speakers Wednesday said was a violation of patients’ privacy rights.

“I’ve heard a number of doctors tell me they’re confused about some of the language and very concerned about potential criminal violations, being sued by people,” Cooper said. 

Ward said the words in the bill are “vague” and things such as “life endangerment” are unique to each person.

“Medicine is completely evolving, always,” she said. “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 am capable and trained to do it.”

The bill increases funding for children and pregnancy care, including $180 million in state and federal money. It would cover additional contraceptive care, prenatal care, additional dollars to foster care and children’s homes, maternity and paternity leave for teachers and state employees and funds to address infant and maternal mortality.

Butler referred to these provisions as funded “distractions.”

“It’s a 46-page bill that has other niceties, reported good things for women, childcare, all these things,” Butler said. “And as the governor has pointed out several times, let’s do those things for women — in a separate bill. But not to try to distract from the meat of the matter, which is an effective prohibition against abortion in North Carolina.”

Cooper pointed out the timing of the bill left no room for any discussion, expert testimony or amendments. He has been traveling across the state this week to speak against the bill and will host a rally in Raleigh on Saturday to garner support for his veto. He is expected to sign at the event.

“I hope legislators have had time to read it, reflect upon it, hear experts and recognize that this legislation would be a disaster,” he said. “All we need is one — one person with a conscience, one person who wants to keep a promise, one person who wants to protect their family and grandchildren, one person who knows that this is wrong and is not afraid to stand up to party leadership.”

Gov. Cooper greets Planned Parenthood South Atlantic president and CEO Jenny Black at a round table discussion Wednesday at CFCC. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

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