You can say a lot of things about State Sen. Warren Daniel, the three-term Morganton Republican behind the General Assembly’s latest attack on abortion rights. You can say he’s severely conservative, completely at home among the far-right legislators who rode in on the tea party wave. You can say he wants to entrench his moral disapprobation into state statute, whether it’s abortion or gay marriage or forcing couples to wait two years before they divorce.
But you can’t say he’s not honest, at least about Senate Bill 604. When the INDY called, Daniel was forthright about his motivations: “Pro-life legislators in every legislative session look for ways” to restrict abortion rights, he explained.
It’s not just pro-life legislators, Daniel continued. It’s also conservative outfits like the N.C. Values Coalition and the N.C. Family Policy Council, which together formed a “working group” that met ahead of the bill’s introduction to hash out ideas to, in effect, circumvent Roe v. Wade.
This session, that took the form of the “Women and Children’s Protection Act of 2015.” Although not as draconian as its forebearsthe Legislature has been systematically hacking at abortion rights since Republicans took over in 2011the bill is nonetheless raising alarms among pro-choice groups, who see it as another potential hole in an already-crumbling dam.
“It’s part of a larger plan to make abortion inaccessible to as many women as possible,” says Shoshannah Smith Sayers, interim executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina.”Take the entire record of regulationsit’s just chipping away. Eventually it’s going to get bigger.”
Among its most onerous requirements, the bill would require doctors who perform an abortion after 16 weeks of pregnancy to record the fetus’ “probable gestational age,” the fetus’ measurements and an ultrasound image, all of which would be sent to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
(In December, a federal court ruled unconstitutional the state’s requirement that abortion providers show a woman an ultrasound of the fetus before aborting it; the state is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.)
SB 604 also subtly tightens exemptions to the state’s post-20-week abortion ban. Abortion providers would now have to, in effect, prove that the mother’s life was “gravely” endangered; specifically, they’d have to “record the findings and analysis” they used to determine that carrying the fetus to term would “threaten the life or gravely impair the health of the woman.” That information, too, would be sent to DHSS.
“The current definition was too squishy,” Daniel says of the life-of-the-mother exemption. “… If it’s just some kind of vague mental health reason that’s not really medically determinable,” it shouldn’t be covered.
From Daniel’s perspective, SB 604 is a corrective. The anti-abortion legislation he pushed through the Legislature two years ago failed to achieve the desired results. The 2013 law forbade women from obtaining insurance coverage for abortion on the health-care exchange and local governments from including abortion coverage in their employees’ insurance plans. It banned sex-selective abortion and required abortion providers to be physically present during the procedure. And it directed DHSS to more tightly regulate abortion providers, which critics saw as a thinly veiled effort to shut down clinics.
To Daniel, that part of the law was a compromise: Rather than having the Legislature dictate a batch of new rules, lawmakers kept DHHS in charge. The department, in turn, convened an expert panel and late last year unveiled its proposed regulations.
Pro-choice advocates were pleased. The rules wouldn’t shutter clinics; instead focusing on more perfunctory requirements like mandating that clinics have a defibrillator on premises and an emergency transfer agreement with nearby hospitals (or a letter stating that the clinic tried to secure the agreement). But that wasn’t enough for conservatives, who faulted the McCrory administration for bringing abortion providers into the regulatory process.
“You had more people from the abortion industry represented on the panel than those from the pro-life viewpoint,” Daniel says.
SB 604 was engineered to rectify that imbalance. In addition to the medical restrictions on abortion, it orders DHSS to annually inspect all abortion facilities. It reiterates the transfer-agreement mandatebut adds that merely seeking the agreement is no longer sufficientand makes clinics’ medical and demographic reporting requirements more burdensome.
“If they’re going to perform late-term [abortions],” Daniel says, “the state has an interest in getting them to more thoroughly document the age of the child.”
Melissa Reed, Planned Parenthood’s North Carolina vice president of public affairs, points out that since many major fetal abnormalities are not diagnosed until after the 20-week deadline, under North Carolina law women are effectively forced to carry babies to term even if it’s certain the baby will be stillborn or die soon after birth.
The bill has a novel answer to that concern: It allocates $500,000 to UNC Chapel Hill to establish a “state-of-the-art perinatal resource center to serve families with complications detected by prenatal diagnosis”in other words, a fetal hospice program.
“I don’t have any problem in the world with providing services,” Sayers says. “But there’s a difference between that and pressuring women.”
Still, she says, it’s not this billwhich she describes as “run of the mill”that bugs her. “It’s the bigger picture that concerns me. My concern is that it’s part of a bigger push.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “The choice is theirs”