Can a Female Governor Hold Back an Anti-Choice Tide in North Carolina?

Just hours before a looming midnight deadline on Monday, North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed a state bill mandating an abortion waiting period and pre-abortion counseling. But the fight is not over yet.

In vetoing House Bill 854 (given the Orwellian name of the “Women's Right to Know” bill), Governor Perdue squashed a piece of legislation that would have required a 24-hour waiting period before a woman could obtain an abortion.

While waiting periods have become increasingly commonplace throughout the nation, HB 854 would also make patients undergo counseling by a health-care provider via phone or in person, see an ultrasound before the procedure (though the bill provided that patients could avert their eyes), and listen to a narrative account of the ultrasound image.

The counseling would also include information about adoption; the financial responsibilities of fathers to support their children; and health care or social services benefits that might be available to cover pregnancy or parenting assistance. It also would share unspecified information about the medical risks of abortion — another condition that raised the hackles of reproductive health advocates because abortion is widely considered by the World Health Organization and medical associations a safe and simple medical procedure when performed by a trained clinician.

The veto is a skin-of-the-teeth and, perhaps, temporary victory for those advocates, who have been battling an onslaught of state bills designed to chip away at funding for reproductive health care, including but not limited to abortion care.

Buoyed by a new Tea Party-invigorated Republican majority in the state General Assembly, this year North Carolina lawmakers introduced a bevy of bills to limit access to abortion and, ultimately, redefine definitions of life.

Other proposed but unsuccessful laws would have limited abortion coverage in government insurance plans for teachers and other state or local employees ; used fees generated from “Choose Life” license plates to fund crisis pregnancy centers, which avoid discussion of abortion as a viable option to deal with an unwanted pregnancy; and subjected abortion-providing facilities to multiple visits from regulators.

In addition, a successful budget provision stripped Planned Parenthood of state funding. That budget provision was also vetoed by Perdue, but it was overridden and will stand, unless it is struck down in a legal challenge. In North Carolina, state representatives and senators can override a governor's veto if they marshal a three-fifths majority in support of the bill.

Dr. Takey Crist, who owns the obstetrics-gynecology Crist Center for Women in Jacksonville, North Carolina, said that he “didn't have any doubt that Perdue would veto [HB 854], but now we've just got to see if they will override this one, too.

“This is about men trying to control women's lives. What would happen if a man wanted Viagra or Cialis and we tried to make them wait for it? You can write these restrictions, you can make them law. But I'm telling you after 40 years of doing this, if a woman wants an abortion, she will find a way to get one.”

Crist is a longtime physician whose clinic opened in 1973, immediately after the legalization of abortion, and says that the political climate regarding abortion is worse now than it was after “Roe v. Wade”. He does not think it’s an exaggeration to say that, with the spate of anti-abortion bills in a more conservative state General Assembly, North Carolina is backsliding to the 1960s, when he regularly saw four to five women with complications from unsafe abortions every weekend in the Charleston, South Carolina, hospital where he was a resident.

“Then, we had the clinic demonstrations, and that stopped because of the rule that protesters can't be on the property. I would tell the staff that protesters wouldn't be here long. Then, it got worse with the deaths of [physicians] Barnett Slepian and George Tiller,” both murdered by anti-abortion individuals. “And now what I've seen in the last several years is the fanaticism of the Tea Party,” he said. “What they don't understand is that when you kill funding for Planned Parenthood, what you're killing is the ability to save women's lives, women who can't get a Pap smear that might detect cancer, and you're killing the ability to stop sexually-transmitted diseases. You're using more taxpayer money for unwanted pregnancies and Medicaid.”

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Paige Johnson, vice president of policy for Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina (which, along with Planned Parenthood Health Systems, operates a total of nine clinics statewide), agreed. She said that lawmakers' strange tunnel vision — where abortion is the only thing they see and Planned Parenthood is among the right's favorite punching bags — is a blow to women's health and wellbeing. Six out of 10 women who visit Planned Parenthood's North Carolina facilities will not see another health-care provider, which means that those Planned Parenthoods are providing primary care for many women, in the form of low-cost physicals and affordable birth control. Not all of the Planned Parenthood clinics offer abortion services, either.

She also emphasized that HB 854 could put abortion providers in danger.

She said HB “is not just about women. You've got women calling to get counseling on the phone, there's no confirmed pregnancy. Any woman who calls and says she's pregnant, she gets the doctor's name,” a requirement that could expose abortion providers to more targeted harassment.

HB 854 bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Patricia McElraft, a three-term Republican representing Jones and Carteret counties in North Carolina's more rural east. Notably, in this legislative session, she was also the primary sponsor of a bill to create a board to provide low-income people spay and neutering services for their pets.

But she recently made headlines when she claimed that her niece went to a Planned Parenthood that was a dark house where staff refused to let the woman see the pre-abortion ultrasound and encouraged to her have an abortion due to her drug use. After being confronted by Planned Parenthood's Johnson, who approached McElraft immediately after the comments and asked where the alleged encounter took place, and her House colleague, Democratic Rep. Alma Adams, McElraft later clarified that the clinic was not in North Carolina.

Anne Fischer of Morganton, North Carolina, said that HB 854 is another obstacle to poor women accessing reproductive health care. She is the founding director of the Southern Mountain Women's Health Alliance, the only abortion fund in the state according to the National Association of Abortion Funds (NNAF). Created in 1987 as an outgrowth of Fischer's advocacy for battered women, the fund has assisted hundreds of low-income women by contributing an average grant of $100 toward the procedure.

“Don't they know that women have been waiting and waiting by the time they come to a clinic? It's not only about money. They don't have support, they don't know what to do, or they're in denial. And we do such a bad job [at preventing pregnancy and publicizing free or subsidized contraception at places such county health departments]. The bad thing is that it will force women to make two trips, and some women are on the edge between first and second trimester.”

North Carolina allows abortions to 20 weeks but once women pass that mark and there's no medical reason for the abortion, they've got to travel to other states like Georgia, where the upper limit for elective abortions is higher at 26 weeks. Assuming that they have transportation, free time, and money for gas or hotels to cross state lines, they are likely to find that second-trimester abortions cost more far than the about $450 dollars average fee for a first-trimester termination in most clinics.

At Fischer's fund's peak, it subsidized about 140 abortions per year. Now, however, it's out of money, which means that women in North Carolina and surrounding states — the fund has assisted women to get abortions in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia — have even less access to abortions than in previous years.

It's a grim overall picture: a policy environment that is hostile to women's reproductive choices, the sole abortion fund drying up, the state government abortion fund for indigent women rendered inaccessible through a legislative sleight of hand since the mid-1990s, and dwindling numbers of abortion providers. A March 2011 report by researchers affiliated with the Guttmacher Institute reported a 16 percent decline in the number of abortion providers in North Carolina, down from 55 in 2000 to 31 in 2008.

Melissa Reed, Johnson's counterpart with Planned Parenthood Health Systems, said that both Planned Parenthood organizations are organizing a phone bank targeting moderate Republican and conservative Democrats whose votes could determine whether an override of HB 854 passes; that all-important final vote could happen next month.

But in the meantime, Reed and her colleagues will be coping with a reduced budget.

“We will continue to offer services,” she said. “But we may not be able to continue our adolescent parenting program in Wilmington, which has been operating for 15 years with state funding. We'll still offer the full range of reproductive health services, but now women will have to pay out of pocket.”

Clearly, the lives of the women, men, and adolescents in need of health care don't matter to the so-called pro-life contingent in North Carolina.