Demonstrators rally in Raleigh following a GOP proposal to severely limit abortion access. Credit: Brett Villena

A year ago, when North Carolinians found out that the U.S. Supreme Court was going to overturn Roe v. Wade, hundreds of protestors gathered in downtown Raleigh—devastated, confused, and angry. Today, they’re just angry. 

“We’re out here because we’re pissed off!” shouted one activist into the microphone this afternoon. “We’re tired. We hate that we have to be out here, in the middle of the day, advocating for something that seems like it’s a no-brainer. But that’s OK, because we’re here, right? And we’re gonna make sure people know what we care about, right?”

The speaker was rallying a crowd of about 100 who gathered in front of the North Carolina legislative building on Wednesday to protest a 12-week abortion ban, which was rushed through by Republican lawmakers Tuesday night. 

At the time of this story’s publication, the bill (Senate Bill 20) had been approved by the North Carolina House in a vote along party lines. It is expected to be approved by the Senate on Thursday and land on Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s desk soon afterward. 

Cooper has pledged to veto the bill, but that doesn’t mean much in the face of a Republican supermajority. Republicans worked behind closed doors to reach a compromise that would ensure every member in the House and Senate would vote “yes,” with some pushing for an even stricter, six-week abortion ban.

At the protest today, activists asked voters to call, email, and write their representatives in the hopes of swaying just one Republican and preventing the ban from becoming law. At the moment, pro-choice advocacy groups are still fighting. But they’re also preparing for the worst. 

One of the biggest concerns is simply keeping abortion clinics in North Carolina open. Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, which runs six of the state’s 14 abortion clinics, doesn’t currently have a center that meets the bill’s “political” and “medically unnecessary requirements,” CEO and President Jenny Black said Wednesday during the rally. 

The pro-choice organization is working to meet those requirements—which include additional reporting, inspection, and licensing mandates—but the high cost of making such changes could put other clinics out of business. 

If the new abortion restrictions become law, clinics will also continue to struggle to provide the care pregnant people need. The bill prevents most surgical abortions after 12 weeks and most medication abortions after 10 weeks, according to Molly Rivera, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood. So from the time you become pregnant, the clock is ticking. 

Commercial pregnancy tests typically give accurate results after about two weeks, when a pregnant person may have already missed their period. After that, a pregnant person may have to wait two-three weeks for an appointment at an abortion clinic. There, according to the bill, they are required to give in-person consent, then wait an additional three days before receiving care.

“So (there are) three trips to the clinic at least 72 hours apart, which will be a huge barrier to people,” Rivera says. 

The bill has some exceptions—survivors of rape or incest are allowed to seek abortions up to 20 weeks, and there are no limits on abortions for people who are at risk of death. But many experts say these exceptions don’t work. 

“We’ve already seen (the effects) of the 20-week ban …. (There are) doctors who work with patients with complicated pregnancies and medical emergencies, and they’ve not been able to provide the care (patients) need,” said Tara Romano, executive director of Pro-Choice NC. “So when you see a general 12-week ban … you’re going to see impacts on people being able to access care.”

Any ban on abortion creates a “chilling effect” on medical care, says Romano. Patients may be confused about their rights and delay seeking an abortion, while physicians may be hesitant to perform medically necessary abortions because they’re unsure of the law or their own liability. 

“If doctors feel that they are at risk in performing their duties, and patients are too afraid to seek care because of the political climate, then patients are going to die. It’s as simple as that,” says Chelsea Daniels, a family medicine physician who works part-time at Planned Parenthood.

“The maternal mortality (rate) has already gone up in states where bans have been enacted. It’s an inevitably in North Carolina or any state that enacts an abortion ban.” 

Daniels wasn’t the only medical professional at the rally. Several students training to be physician’s assistants also showed up, complete with white coats. 

“I just moved from Washington State, a state that really supports women’s rights,” said Lila Lehtola, one of the students. “So for me, it’s really disappointing. And it’s scary, as a woman of reproductive age, to live in a state like this. It makes me not really feel safe, (not) want to continue living here.”

Lehtola, like Daniels, works and studies at one of the Triangle’s biggest medical facilities. But, also like Daniels, she asked that her place of study not be named, since many large hospitals and medical schools in the area don’t want to enter the political fray over abortion. 

Unfortunately, it’s these powerful institutions that could have the most influence in the fight, especially if they came out against North Carolina’s proposed abortion ban. After news about the bill spread, Daniels says she started having conversations with other medical professionals to explore how they might unite in protest.

Meanwhile, Lehtola and her fellow students are currently in the middle of their reproductive health unit, where they’re discussing patient-centered care, medical options, and North Carolina’s laws. Another one of the students, who asked to be identified only by the initials C.Z., is considering specializing in reproductive endocrinology. 

“We talk about ectopic pregnancies; we talk about how the mother can be in danger,” says C.Z. “Feeling like our hands our tied, like our decisions are being made for us … it just doesn’t feel right.” 

C.Z.’s reaction to news about the abortion ban was “visceral,” she says. And Lehtola’s reaction, like that of many women across the state, was angry. 

“I was fuming,” Lehtola said. “It’s personal. There’s not legislation out there to control men’s bodies and their reproductive rights … that’s why I take it so personally and that’s why I get so heated about it.”

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