Hundreds of longtime activists and newcomers on the abortion issue converged Tuesday on a North Carolina House committee as it weighed legislation hastily run through the Senate last week to tighten regulations on abortion clinics.
The House must decide whether to accept the bill and send it to Gov. Pat McCrory's desk, seek adjustments with the Senate to address the concerns of McCrory and his administration, or do both.
The House health care panel spent nearly two hours on the measure, which among other things would direct state health regulators to develop clinic standards similar to those used to regulate North Carolina's outpatient surgery centers. Doctors also would have to be physically present throughout an entire surgical abortion and when a woman receives a chemically-induced abortion.
The bill's opponents say it would force many of the state's 16 clinics to close because they couldn't afford to meet the standards, reducing women's access to abortion. But backers of the bill say it's all about protecting the health and safety of women from incompliant clinics. Two have been ordered to close in North Carolina this year.
"I truly, honestly cannot understand objection to regulating the abortion industry, which provides invasive procedures just like any other surgical procedure that a woman would undergo," said Vicki Ferree of Garner, who came to her first-ever legislative committee to support the measure's passage.
Ferree was among scores of activists attending the meeting - anti-abortion advocates wearing blue shirts on one side of the committee room and those supporting abortion rights in pink tops on the other. Others rallied outside the committee building beforehand and demanded lawmakers stop the bill.
"Listen to your constituents and listen to women," said Marianne Carter-Maschal of Siler City, who kept tabs on 6-month-old son Teddy in his stroller while holding a handmade sign with the pictures of senators - mostly men - who voted for the bill. "The majority of women do not support this."
State Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos addressed the committee, expanding on the problems the governor has with the legislation. Wos urged more study of current state rules monitoring clinics, along with clarification of the bill's language, before legislators move the measure along.
She said reviewing existing abortion clinic regulations, with safety standards unchanged since 1995, and increasing the frequency of clinic inspections, are among the most consequential ways to improve the health and safety of women. There are only 10 inspectors reviewing hundreds of clinics and health facilities statewide.
"I urge you to follow the governor's advice and leadership and spend more time studying these issues," Wos told House members.
Republican supporters of the legislation in the House and Senate said they would work with Wos' agency, but sounded more interested in passing the current legislation before this year's session ends, probably this month.
"The Senate and the House bill sponsors heard the questions that (HHS) has and we're going to continue the conversation and figure out how to address (them), if they need to be addressed at all," said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg. She said she'd like to have a floor vote on accepting the Senate's changes later this week.
The debate was heightened because Senate Republicans pushed through the measure just before a long July 4 weekend with no advance notice that several provisions related to abortion would be added to an unrelated bill. That angered pro-abortion rights groups and women who descended on the Senate gallery last Wednesday before the final Senate vote.
"One day of public comment in the House does not make up for the rush and premature vote on this bill," Sarah Preston with the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union told the committee in opposing the bill.
Doctors also spoke on opposing sides of the bill during the public comment period, as did representatives of Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, the N.C. Family Policy Council and N.C. Right to Life.
Drexdal Pratt, director of the state Division of Health Service Regulation, told lawmakers the bill as currently written is unclear in several areas, such as what it would mean for a doctor to be "physically present" for an entire surgical abortion and for clinic rules to be "similar to those" for licensing ambulatory surgical centers.
Pratt said it takes about $1 million more to build an ambulatory surgical center than an abortion clinic. Pratt also said it's unclear how much it would cost existing clinics to convent to higher standards and how many clinics could meet them and remain open. There is one ambulatory surgical center that performs abortions in the state.