Sen. Rachel Hunt, D-Mecklenburg, has filed a bill that, if passed into law, would codify abortion access in the North Carolina Constitution. Hunt is the Democratic nominee in the 2024 North Carolina lieutenant governor’s race.

Senate Bill 909, “Protect Women’s Healthcare,” would amend Article I of the state constitution to protect abortion access. 

The co-sponsors on this bill are all Democratic senators: Val Applewhite, Jay Chaudhuri, Lisa Grafstein, Natasha Marcus, Julie Mayfield, Graig Meyer, Gladys Robinson, DeAndrea Salvador, and Kandie Smith. 

SB 20, which passed last session, proposes that abortion be legal under state law within the first 12 weeks if “performed by a qualified position licensed to practice medicine in this State, in a hospital, ambulatory surgical center, or clinic certified by the Department of Health and Human Services…or during the first 12 weeks of a woman’s pregnancy when a medical abortion is procured.”

According to the language of the bill, it is also legal between the 12th and 20th week in cases of rape or incest or after the 24th week if there is a “life-limiting anomaly.”

The Democrats’ proposed legislation in SB 909 would enshrine in the state constitution that: “The State shall not restrict a woman’s right to decide to have an abortion. Additionally, the State shall not restrict access to contraception, fertility treatment, continuing one’s own pregnancy or miscarriage care.” 

The bill goes on to read:

“The State may restrict the ability of a woman to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy after fetal viability, unless such a termination is necessary to preserve the life or health of the woman, or enact laws, rules, or regulations, as applicable, to further the health or safety of a woman seeking to terminate a pregnancy.” 

Sen. Amy Galey, R-Alamance, raises some concerns with the language “fetal viability.” 

“This bill would enshrine ‘fetal viability’ as the threshold for whether an abortion is legal.  ‘Fetal viability’ is an amorphous, vague standard that is impossible to put into practice,” Galey told the Carolina Journal in an email.  

She says the ambiguity of the language makes it difficult to enforce and leaves too much room for interpretation.

“First, whether an unborn baby is viable outside the womb depends a great deal on how close the mother lives to a NICU,” she added. “Babies in rural areas without access to a NICU would have less right to live than a baby in Charlotte,” said Galey. “Second, ‘Viability’ is a judgment call by an examiner who may be the person who charges a fee for performing the abortion. How is the decision reviewed?”

How a viability standard works in practice remains a question.

“An examiner performs an ultrasound, assessing the lung, heart, and brain development of the unborn baby,” she said. “If it appears to be unable to survive outside the womb, it is okay to cut it into pieces and vacuum the baby out? Or if the baby has grown too much, the examiner turns to the mother and says, ‘It’s too big, it can survive outside the womb, so we cannot perform the abortion.’  What a grisly thing to normalize.”  

Lastly, Galey points out that one of the biggest reasons abortions are sought, at least according to abortion advocates, is already covered under state law. 

“Finally, most pro-abortion advocates claim that abortions later in pregnancy are sought because either there has been a diagnosis of a fatal fetal anomaly or the mother is experiencing a life-threatening condition,” said Galey. “If this is true, then current North Carolina law provides for those circumstances. Abortion is legal up to 24 weeks for cases of fatal fetal anomaly and up until birth for maternal medical emergencies. Therefore, the circumstances that this bill would contemplate are already accommodated by NC law.” 

Sen. Val Applewhite, D-Cumberland, one of the co-sponsors of this bill, offered comment on why she supports it.

“It’s appropriate that on the one-year anniversary of SB 20 that we take this step,” Applewhite told the Carolina Journal in an email. “It is important that we allow North Carolinians to have their voices heard on one of the most consequential issues in our state and country. It is clear that with a Republican majority, this is critical. In conversations on the Senate floor, I have heard that we should be grateful that a total ban was not enacted. In my opinion we could very well be headed in that direction if Mark Robinson is elected. Putting this to a vote before all North Carolinians is a critical next step to preserve the healthcare rights of women across our state.”

Hunt’s bill currently sits with the Senate Committee on Operations and Rules. If it passes the legislature, the constitutional amendment would be placed on the ballot for the general election this November. If a majority of North Carolina voters are in favor, it would become effective on Jan. 1, 2025. 

In the general election this fall, Hunt will face off against Republican nominee Hal Weatherman

During the primary campaign, Weatherman said he supports a “Heartbeat Bill,” improving the foster care system, and making adoptions easier. A Carolina Journal poll in March 2024 found that 12% of North Carolina voters thought abortion was the top policy issue going into the 2024 elections, well behind immigration, and the economy.