Gov. Pat McCrory said Monday he wants legislators to take a closer look at abortion regulations in North Carolina before acting further on legislation that would place higher standards upon clinics and more responsibilities upon physicians.
The governor, holding a rare formal news conference at the Executive Mansion, didn't say specifically what he'd do if the current bill — hastily moved through the Senate before the long July 4 holiday — came to his desk. As a candidate last fall, McCrory said in a televised debate he didn't want to sign legislation that creates additional abortion restrictions.
Rather, it sounded like McCrory, a Republican, wants to find a way to avoid a potential showdown with social conservatives in his own party and abortion rights advocates. He said he wants the House, which is next in line to review the bill Tuesday, to look at current clinic rules to see if they're reasonable and being enforced.
"There's a fine line between safety measures and restrictions, but those two lines should not be confused and I'm very concerned about the responsibility to ensure the health of women is protected," the governor told reporters.
The bill in part would direct state health regulators to change abortion clinic rules so they're similar to those for ambulatory surgery centers. Only one such abortion provider currently is designated as an ambulatory surgery center, which requires equipment and facility upgrades. Bill opponents say it could shutter many of the 16 clinics because it's too expensive to meet the standards, effectively limiting the rights of women to obtain an abortion.
The bill also would prohibit gender-selective abortions, restrict abortion insurance coverage and require a physician to be physically present during an entire surgical abortion and when a woman takes an abortion-inducing drug.
Without identifying certain provisions, McCrory said parts of the bill "clearly cross that line that could add further restrictions to access and I think that's where we need further discussion and further debate." He said that could take "several days, weeks or months — whatever it takes to make sure we understand this process."
The House planned committee debate on the measure Tuesday morning even though it was still being held officially by the Senate. McCrory said Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos and other experts will give feedback to House Health Care Committee members on the legislation.
The House ultimately will have to vote to decide whether to accept the Senate changes, which would send the bill to McCrory, or reject them, which would likely create a conference committee to work out differences. McCrory can sign a bill into law, veto it or let it become law without his signature.
More than 500 abortion rights supporters gathered at the Senate last week during the chamber's final debate on the bill. They said they were angry with how Senate Republicans piled several abortion-related measures into an unrelated bill without public notice. McCrory said Monday he and his staff weren't told ahead of time either and reiterated his unhappiness with the legislative process.
Abortion protections also were on the minds of those attending the latest weekly protests Monday at the Legislative Building against GOP policies that have led to several hundred arrests over the past 2½ months.
North Carolina's two Roman Catholic bishops, the Most Rev. Michael Burbidge of Raleigh and the Most Rev. Peter Jugis of Charlotte, urged lawmakers Monday to pass the bill and asked parishioners to contact House members.
"A woman should be guaranteed safeguards when receiving this type of medical or surgical procedure," Burbidge said in a release. "She should expect no less."
McCrory said recent clinic closings — one Charlotte clinic closed briefly while the state ordered a Durham clinic to close late last week — highlighted current laws already on the books to enforce medical standards. "We're going to make sure that we enforce existing law," he said.
There are 10 state government inspectors statewide to scrutinize clinics, hospice care, psychiatric hospitals, home health care agencies and other medical facilities. Abortion clinics are inspected on average every two years, Wos' agency said Monday.
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said Monday the Durham closing, based on determined safety violations, affirms the need for the new bill.
"This is exactly the type of substandard 'medical' care threatening women's health that we intended to fight" with the new legislation," Berger said in a release.