Legislators want to intervene in federal lawsuit targeting abortion pill rules

The N.C. House of Representatives meets for business. (Image from N.C. General Assembly YouTube channel)

Listen to this story (4 minutes)

  • Legislative leaders have filed a motion to intervene in a federal lawsuit targeting North Carolina's law banning abortion pills.
  • Lawmakers took action after N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, the lead defendant in the case, announced that he would not defend the state law.

Legislative leaders filed a motion Tuesday to take part in a federal lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s restrictions on abortion pills. Lawmakers took that step after N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein announced he would not defend state law in the case.

The suit Bryant v. Stein, filed Jan. 25, targeted the attorney general, the Orange-Chatham County district attorney, the N.C. secretary of health and human services, and members of the N.C. Medical Board. The complaint did not mention legislative leaders, even though the General Assembly approved the disputed law.

“The Legislative Leaders have an interest in upholding the validity of state statutes aimed at protecting unborn life, promoting maternal health and safety, and regulating the medical profession, “ according to the motion from lawmakers’ attorneys. “North Carolina law designates the Legislative Leaders as agents of the State for the purpose of intervening to defend these statutes. Routine application of recent Supreme Court precedent should make this a fairly simple issue.”

“This action seeks to undermine the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization by usurping the authority of the people of North Carolina, acting through their elected representatives, to reasonably regulate abortion in their state,” according to the motion. “It does so by challenging several commonsense health-and-safety laws that have been on the books for years, based on a new and incorrect argument that the FDA’s decision to permit chemical abortion drugs to be marketed under certain conditions means that states cannot enact their own laws regulating the safety of chemical abortion for their citizens.”

The motion cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling in Berger v. NAACP, in which the high court ruled, 8-1, that lawmakers could intervene in a federal lawsuit challenging the states’ voter ID law.

“The Supreme Court recognized the Legislative Leaders’ significant protectable interest in protecting valid North Carolina laws and potential impairment if they are blocked from participating in a lawsuit about the validity [of] North Carolina laws,” lawmakers argued.

“This case proves the necessity and wisdom of North Carolina’s choice about who can speak on the State’s behalf in federal court,” according to the motion. “Attorney General Joshua Stein is a named defendant who publicly opposes North Carolina’s laws regulating abortion. He informed the Legislative Leaders that he [will] not defend the challenged laws in this case and will affirmatively support Plaintiff’s challenge. That makes the Legislative Leaders’ intervention even more important.”

State Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, released a joint statement about the intervention. “North Carolina’s reasonable restrictions on chemical abortions are designed to protect women,” Berger and Moore said. “However, the Attorney General has made it abundantly clear that when faced with the opportunity to uphold his oath or advance his political career, he will pick his career every time. Since Attorney General Stein won’t do the job he was elected to do, legislative leaders will intervene in this case to defend our state’s pro-life laws.”

Dr. Amy Bryant, the UNC Health doctor serving as the plaintiff in the case, also took part in a 2016 lawsuit that challenged other N.C. abortion laws, including the ban on most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. That lawsuit proved successful for abortion advocates until the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs ruling.

U.S. District Judge William Osteen “vacated and dissolved” his injunction against North Carolina’s abortion law in August 2022. Osteen cited the Dobbs ruling in his decision.

Osteen is also overseeing the Bryant v. Stein case.