RALEIGH, N.C. – The North Carolina Senate gave its final approval Wednesday to legislation adding new restrictions for abortions in North Carolina, even as hundreds of angry protesters descended on the legislature to express their displeasure.
The Senate voted 29-12 for the measure that would direct state health regulators to change abortion clinic rules so they're similar to those for ambulatory surgery centers.
More than 500 opponents of the legislation -- mostly women and many wearing pink -- organized quickly to gather at the Legislative Building after Senate GOP leaders late Tuesday added several abortion-related provisions to an unrelated bill and won quick approval in a committee and in an initial Senate vote.
Even Republican Gov. Pat McCrory criticized the rushed legislative process in a statement Wednesday but was silent on the contents of the bill, which would still need House approval again before it goes to his desk. The General Assembly won't take up legislation again until early next week.
"Regardless of what party is in charge or what important issue is being discussed, the process must be appropriate and thorough," McCrory, who was elected last year, said. When McCrory was asked last fall during a debate which additional abortion restrictions he would agree to sign into law, he responded, "None."
More than 100 protesters in the atrium outside the full gallery above the Senate floor chanted "Shame!" after Wednesday's vote. One woman was arrested by General Assembly police after yelling "Shame on you!" before the daily session ended. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who presided over the nearly two-hour debate, warned the crowd several times about their debate outbursts before clearing the gallery before adjournment.
The bill, which received initial approval Tuesday night, could force abortion clinics to close and would effectively limit the rights of women to obtain an abortion in the state, according to its opponents. There are 16 licensed abortion clinics in the state but only one ambulatory surgical center that performs the procedure, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
"If they can restrict access to abortion, they can officially take away that right and it's really distressing," said Maria Lynn of Chapel Hill, a former nurse and one of the protesters.
The updated bill also would prohibit gender-selective abortions, restrict abortion insurance coverage and require a physician to be physically present during an entire surgical abortion and when a woman takes an abortion-inducing drug such as RU-486.
Social conservatives pushed the bill, and backers say it would make abortion procedures safer for women in the light of recent problems with some clinics, bringing them in line with other medical facilities.
Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, who is shepherding the bill through the Senate, referred to the abortion doctor in Philadelphia convicted recently of killing live babies at a clinic that prosecutors labeled "a house of horrors" in pushing the bill. Another senator read a newspaper story about a Charlotte clinic that was forced to close briefly this spring after state officials determined staffers were improperly administering a drug to induce abortions.
The legislation comes as Republican-led legislatures in North Carolina and several other states -- including Ohio and Texas -- work to place new restrictions on abortion, in some cases effectively limiting their availability. The North Carolina General Assembly passed abortion restrictions in 2011, but some were struck down by a federal court.
Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, equated the bill with "enslavement and domination of me and my body and my uterus ... and my human and constitutional rights to health care." But Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said this bill does not attempt to overturn the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
"We have an obligation to protect the health of the people -- the women -- that go to these clinics," Berger said. "Anyone who is interested in having safe abortions in North Carolina has nothing to fear from this bill."
The swift Senate action on the bill further energized abortions rights groups, many of which already have participated in weekly protests at the Legislative Building against Republican policies on health care, voting rights and other matters. The GOP took control of the legislature after the 2010 elections. Those protests, which have led to nearly 700 arrests, are expected to resume Monday with a focus on the abortion bill.
The Senate leadership knew "they couldn't pass these sweeping restrictions by playing by the rules. It is shameful that they chose to stoop to these underhanded tactics," said Melissa Reed of Planned Parenthood Health Systems, which runs clinics that provide reproductive health care services, including abortions.
Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said Democrats had rammed their own legislation through the chamber for years, and more debate wouldn't have changed the outcome. But McCrory said in his statement the legislative procedure "was not right then and it is not right now."
Lalitree Darnielle of Durham, who stood outside the Senate gallery with 22-month-old son Roman in his stroller, came Wednesday because she said the public should have had more advance notice. "For them to sneak something like this into a vote without public input is disingenuous," she said.
Abortion opponents praised the bill. "We think it's a great victory for the unborn and for women," said Tami Fitzgerald with the North Carolina Values Coalition. "Abortion clinics in North Carolina have problems ... this bill fixes some of those problems."
As for whether the bill becoming law, Fitzgerald said she and allies "would expect the governor to sign the bill."
The bill may be tricky for House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, who is running for Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan's seat in 2014; his spokesman said he had no comment on the legislation Wednesday. The issue could become an issue in any primary race he has.
Hagan criticized the state Senate's move as "shameful." If legislative "leaders think they can pull a fast one on women's health right before a holiday, they are wrong," Hagan tweeted. "Women are watching."
The bill also contains provisions that already passed the House. Those would outlaw or limit abortion-related services from health insurance plans offered through exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act or by cities and counties. Conscientious refusals to participate in an abortion would be expanded beyond doctors and nurses to any medical professional.