NC House committee fast tracks bill further restricting abortion rights

The North Carolina House Judiciary I Committee approved a bill on Wednesday that seeks to further limit access to abortion services in North Carolina. House Bill 453, the “Human Life Nondiscrimination Act,” seeks to prohibit a patient from obtaining an abortion if it is being sought because of the actual or presumed race or sex of the fetus or the presence or presumed presence of Down syndrome.

As Policy Watch reported previously, the measure cleared the House Health Committee Tuesday with a 17-9 partisan (Republicans for and Democrats against) split. Under the proposed law, physicians would have to confirm that the patient’s decision to obtain an abortion has nothing to do with any of the proscribed categories.

Down syndrome is a chromosome disorder that can be screened and diagnosed during pregnancy. Under the proposal, physicians would bear the burden to record any testing of the fetus’ sex or race, as well as the presence and presumption of Down syndrome. In addition, they would need to provide a statement that they have no reason to believe their patient is seeking an abortion because of such conditions.

Emboldened by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in April to overturn a lower court decision that blocked a similar 2018 law in Ohio, bill supporters moved the bill through two House committees in two days.

The legislation sparked debates in the North Carolina General Assembly amid a national push from abortion opponents for more restrictive laws. While the the bill was pitched as an effort to advance equality for people of color and the disabled, some from those communities voiced concern over the bill’s true intentions.

Rep. John Bradford, R-Mecklenburg, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said at the hearing that the bill’s intent was, as he said was the intent of the Ohio law, to “protect the Down syndrome community from the stigma that often suffers from the practice of Down syndrome selective abortions, and is intended to protect women who suspect Down syndrome from coerced abortions and to protect the medical community … from unethical doctors.”

Current North Carolina law already includes provisions banning sex-selective abortions, but doesn’t address the race or other genetic issues, including Down syndrome.

Bradford said the bill is narrow enough and seeks to tackle abortions related to Down syndrome in particular. Speakers representing the ACLU of North Carolina, NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina and Planned Parenthood South Atlantic strongly disagreed, however, saying at the meeting that the bill chips away at a patient’s constitutional rights to abortion and privacy. “The bill would also compromise the doctor-patient relationship by making the doctor question their patient regarding the reasons behind their decision and deny care depending on their answers,” an ACLU statement said.

Dr. Ng, speaks at the House Judiciary 1 Committee meeting in support of HB 453 on May 5, 2021.

Dr. Wing Ng, a Raleigh-based physician specializing in rehabilitation medicine said at the hearing that the bill gives children with Down syndrome a “fighting chance,” just like his daughter, who was also at the hearing. “The abortion of babies based on the diagnosis of Down syndrome is a form of discrimination,” Ng said. “Because it places the value of the woman over that of the unborn child. This goes against the spirit of the Americans with Disability Act.”

Disability Rights North Carolina Policy Attorney Tara Muller, though, disagreed, saying her organization “opposes restrictions on bodily autonomy, especially in the name of supporting people with disabilities — Forcing people to carry a pregnancy to term does nothing to help people with disabilities,” Mueller said at the meeting that the legislature should focus on other bills that address urgent needs of the disabled community, for example, expanding Medicaid.

Tara Muller of Disability Rights NC

The state of North Carolina does grapple with a past of forced sterilization stemming from eugenics. The North Carolina Eugenics Board, established in 1933, greenlighted more than 7,000 forced sterilizations of men and women who were mostly poor, sick, uneducated, disabled and institutionalized, according to the state Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims.

Eugenics and abortion have been intertwined in policy debates. U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas said in an opinion: “Enshrining a constitutional right to an abortion based solely on the race, sex, or disability of an unborn child, as Planned Parenthood advocates, would constitutionalize the views of the 20th-century eugenics movement.”

Yet some, including an author cited by Thomas, argued that forced sterilization should not be mixed up with women’s autonomy over their own bodies. Some advocates said a multitude of factors could be at play when a person decides to obtain an abortion, and not the mere fact a fetus might be prone to Down syndrome, which could complicate the interpretation and enforcement of the proposed bill.

Maya Hart of SisterSong

Maya Hart, the North Carolina coordinator of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective said in an interview with Policy Watch that the bill would hurt communities of color more than helping them. “I think it’s a really dangerous bill because it could really criminalize people who need this necessary form of health care, and it could look like for example the policing of people’s bodies.”

Including the consideration of race in prohibiting certain abortions, she explained, will likely further deter communities of color from seeking safe health care services they lack historically, as their race could subject them to heavier policing by doctors and law enforcement if the bill went into effect.

The bill places restrictions on the time a pregnant person can access abortion and runs contrary to reproductive justice, Hart said.

Having won approval from the Judiciary I Committee, the measure now moves on to the House Rules committee, which could also act swiftly and send the bill on to the House floor in short order.

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