News: CJ Exclusives

N.C. Dormant on Abortion Bills

Neighboring states pass restrictions, but debate stifled in Tar Heel State

The 2007-08 session of the General Assembly adjourned with half a dozen pro-life bills left on the table, but states neighboring North Carolina considered or passed several similar bills during the same period, making the Tar Heel State a standout in the Southeast in blocking debate on abortion-related measures.

Legislators introduced seven pro-life bills during the session, but only one, a “choose life” specialty license plate bill, was voted on in committee. The others — among them a bill recognizing a separate, unborn victim in the event of a violent crime against a pregnant woman — never came up for a vote.

That trend has held true for the past five sessions, with pro-life bills lying dormant in committee. During that time, lawmakers approved only one provision restricting abortion: language included in the budget each year that reserves the state abortion fund for women who are the victims of rape or incest or whose lives are endangered by a pregnancy.

“Not a single substantive pro-life bill has been heard in committee since 1997,” said House Minority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake.

His counterpart in the Senate, Minority Leader Phil Berger, R-Eden, said Democrats are “killing” legislation supported by most North Carolinians. “They’re afraid of taking a vote on something that’s popular with the people, but not with the leadership,” he said.

Rep. Deborah Ross, a Wake County Democrat, said leaders in the Assembly haven’t brought up abortion-related bills because of consensus challenges. “Even if they get heard in committee, there is a lot of controversy,” Ross said.

She said Democrats aren’t getting their way on prochoice bills, either. “It would be inaccurate to say that only one side hasn’t gotten what it wants. Neither side has gotten what it wants.”

Surrounding states active

South Carolina has been among the most active of North Carolin’s neighboring states in considering and passing pro-life bills. Republican Gov. Mark Sanford in May signed into law a bill that requires physicians to offer a pregnant woman an ultrasound image of her unborn child before an abortion. The state House and Senate approved the bill in 2007 by wide margins. A similar bill was filed in the N.C. House, but it was never brought up in committee.

S.C. legislators also passed an unborn victims of violence act in 2006 and a “choose life” license tag in 2001. The governor signed both measures into law.

Lawmakers have introduced comparable bills in North Carolina in past sessions. The House Transportation Committee approved a bill authorizing a “choose life” license tag in May, but the measure died in another committee. The unborn victims of violence bill never got a hearing.

In Virginia, the state House and a Senate committee passed an informed consent to an abortion bill this year, and the legislature debated and voted on a number of other pro-life bills.

Georgia in 2005 also passed informed-consent legislation, which Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, signed into law. N.C. lawmakers have introduced consistently during the last decade an informed-consent law that’s never been considered in committee.

The Tennessee General Assembly has been less active in considering abortion-related bills, although the state Senate in January considered and passed a resolution in support of a constitutional amendment clarifying that nothing in the state constitution secures the right to an abortion. The resolution died in a House committee.

No debate, no vote

“Our surrounding states have different rules for their legislatures,” said Ross when asked why committee leaders in North Carolina hadn’t allowed debate on abortion bills. “We have crossover deadlines and short session rules, so we follow them. Under Speaker Hackney, we follow them much more than we ever have.”

Ross chairs the House Judiciary I Committee, where the unborn victims of violence bill was assigned last session. A poll commissioned by the Civitas Institute in April found that 82 percent of respondents, all registered N.C. voters, agreed that a perpetrator should face two charges for the murder of a pregnant woman and her viable fetus.

But Ross said such bills are too controversial. “In my committee, we had well more bills than could be heard, so you deal with the bills that have consensus first,” she said. “There were a lot of bills sponsored by Democrats that never got heard, because they were controversial and not ready.”

Rep. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, a frequent sponsor of prolife legislation, said Democrats are “playing up to the far left” by stonewalling debate on bills such as the unborn victims of violence act.

“The leadership needs to realize that with the cases we’ve had in North Carolina over the last year, it makes us look terrible not passing this law,” he said, referring to the recent murders of pregnant women like Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach and Army Spec. Megan Touma.

“You would think that we, being in the Bible Belt, would take the lead on these issues,” said Rep. Mark Hilton, R-Catawba, another sponsor of pro-life bills. “I don’t think the current leadership reflects the current values of this state.”

‘Slapped down’

As an example of pro-choice legislation that she says was stymied in the N.C. legislature, Ross pointed to a bill introduced last year by Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, that would have overhauled North Carolina’s abstinence-until-marriage law in public schools and replaced it with one mandating contraception-based curricula.

The House Health committee passed the bill without prejudice to the House Education Committee in May 2007, but no further action was taken. Companion legislation in the Senate was not considered, either. Fisher declined to comment for this article.

“Poor Susan got a hearing and was slapped down on her bill,” Ross said. “It’s all just part of the process when you have closely divided houses, and you have controversial issues that are harder to get through.”

She said officials of Planned Parenthood, the nation’s leading abortion provider and advocate of the switch to contraception-based sex education in North Carolina, were upset that more “choice-oriented” bills were not getting heard.

“They are p—-d,” she said. “They come into my office all the time and ask why we can’t get our things through.”

David N. Bass is associate editor of Carolina Journal.